I wrote this article for Daily Nation newspaper and was published on 27 March 2011. You can read it on this link
It was during a Christmas party. The moods were high, children were having fun in the compound, and smiles were beaming from every face.
Mary did as many caring wives would do. As John was swallowing his fifth beer, she extended her hand and touched her husband’s belly. “Beer is the cause of this big belly” with soft and caring voice, she warned John. “No, no!” John responded. In a contemplative tone, he explained. “Even if beer is the cause, I am more respected and viewed as rich and happier now than when I was skinny”,
From the talk that ensued, Mary blamed beer for John’s big belly but John was skeptical.
Mary might not be alone; a common assumption is that beer drinking is the cause of pot belly.
Others like John think differently, and even if they reluctantly fault beer as the cause, they feel the belly makes them look like rich people and may also suggest they are more contented in life.
Clinically, the beer belly is called abdomen obesity. Casually, abdomen obesity is referred to as; love handle, muffin top, beer belly, beer gut, spare tire, pot belly, beer pot, public opinion or kitambi (Swahili). Regardless of the nickname used, abdomen obesity is essentially accumulation of fat in the belly.
What does science say is the real cause of Beer belly?
The beer belly is caused by deposition of fat in the abdomen or mid-section of the body. The deposited fat comes from excess calories (calorie is the unit used to measure energy derived from food).
This can occur in two ways, either by eating excess food or taking foods high in calories such as fatty foods, refined carbohydrates, sugary beverages and beer.
Fat derived from excess calories is deposited either below the skin (subcutaneous fat) and/or around the organs (visceral fat).
Visceral fat is the one that typically manifests itself as beer belly.
Why are Beer bellies common in men than women?
Men store fat differently from women. Men, often, store fat in the abdomen while women store fat in their arms, thighs, and buttocks and sometimes in their bellies.
Methods for measuring beer belly
The most accurate method is to medically measure the amount of fat in the body is either by use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT). These methods are expensive, require qualified personnel and sophisticated equipments.
A quick and simpler method is to measure the waist line using a tape measure. This is carried out by measuring the waist line at the navel-along the umbilical cord (in inches).
According to experts, a waist line exceeding 35 inches for women and 40 for men should serve as a warning sign. Such large waist line circumferences are clear indications of abdomen obesity and are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and other diseases.
Another useful measure is the waist-to-hip ratio. This ratio is obtained by dividing the waist size (inches) by hip size (in inches) at their widest point.
Waist to hip ratio above 0.95 for men and 0.85 for women indicates signs of abdomen obesity.
What makes abdominal fat so harmful?
The main scientific explanation of the dangers of visceral fat relies on what is called lipotoxicity (toxic effect of fat on the organs).
When fat accumulates in organs such as pancreas, heart and liver, that are not naturally meant to store fat, it causes them to malfunction.
The resultant effect of malfunctioning organs is impaired regulation of insulin, blood sugar, and cholesterol, as well as abnormal heart functioning.
The other explanation is that visceral fat causes the body’s stress response mechanisms to overreact, which raises the blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and can lead to cardiac risk.
What are the catalysts of beer belly?
The expression ‘beer belly’ put across a perception that beer is the cause of increase in waist circumference or abdomen obesity.
Astonishingly, there are teetotallers who manifest abdominal obesity while there are extremely skinny binge drinkers, this paradox cannot be ignored or wished away.
Scientific studies hypothesising that beer drinking causes beer belly have always yielded mixed results. A general consensus is that beer drinking leads to weight gain, without pin pointing to beer as the solitary cause of swelling waist line.
For example, a study published in an American Journal of clinical nutrition in 2003 which studied 8000 British men drawn from 24 towns showed that drinkers gained weight more than non-drinkers. But this did not categorically associate beer with beer belly.
In the same year (2003) 1000 men and women beer drinkers in Czech Republic were surveyed for weight gain. The Czech Republic is a good place to study the effects of beer. Unlike many countries, beer is the most common drink for both men and women. It is consumed with meals, and Czech people drink beer quite often although in moderate amounts. The results were consistent with literature that beer drinkers gain weight but did not specifically relate to abdomen obesity.
More recently, in 2009, a whooping 20,000 participants among them 8,000 men beer drinkers from Germany were studied to verify the claim of beer belly. It was reported that increase in waist circumference and beer consumption were associated. However, this association was driven by general body weight increase. The study could not confirm the hypothesis of a site-specific effect of beer on waist circumference.
Why is beer then indicted as the cause of pot belly?
A key constituent in beer is alcohol. Alcohol is very high in calories. 1 gram of alcohol contains approximately 7 Calories. Alcohol ranks second to fat in amounts of calories when compared to other macronutrients. 1 gram of fat contains 9 Calories, 1 gram of carbohydrates contains 4 Calories while 1 gram of protein contains 4 Calories.
A 500 ml beer (approximately 1 pint) which is 5 % v/v alcohol contains approximately 170 Calories. Five beer bottles of 500 ml gives a total of 850 Calories. These calories are only derived from alcohol excluding calories from sugar in beer.
Summing these calories up with those from food, it is very easy to exceed the daily recommended calorie intake of 2000 for women and 2500 calories for men.
Most often, drinking beer leads to heightened appetite. In addition to eating large portions of food, quite often, foods washed down with alcohol are high in fat such as barbecue meat (choma), sausages and other fatty foods.
Beer drinking can also lead to a knock-on effect, by causing a drop of blood sugar levels, which leads to lethargy. Lethargy leads to reduced activity which implies that less calories are burned. The burning of less calories increases the likely hood of accumulation of fat and hence pot belly.
A study published in the Journal of Obesity Research in 2002 revealed that men gain a significant amount of weight after marriage, surprisingly; they lose some weight after divorce.
In 2010 Deepak and Lekha from Banaras Hindu University in India published an interesting article that exposed what is to blame for abdomen obesity in married men.
Deepak and his colleague narrowed down to several factors including consuming large meals, feeling secure as a couple, hormones and psychological factors.
Read the other catalysts of beer belly in the second part of this article.