Someone's lips are covered in sugar. They hold a sugar cube.
Want to ward off stubborn belly fat? Stay away from that extra helping of sugary food. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Too much sugar is never good for you. Combine it with extra stress, and you have a recipe for disaster.

There are certain times of the year we know we will indulge in extra sweets: holidays, birthdays, graduations and work outings. These are also times when we might feel more stressed.

But is it possible to enjoy sugar in moderation and be healthy at the same time? Absolutely.

If you can master the basics of healthy eating, despite the extra stress you may be feeling, you can keep your eating in check during any occasion.

Belly up and listen

What I’m really talking about is belly fat. I take this topic very seriously because belly fat can kill you. It can happen to any of us, and it’s something I discuss with nearly all of my patients at one time or another.

Shelly is one of those patients. She came to see me for her physical, and she was upset because her favorite jeans did not fit.

She was just 50 years old and still having periods, and she began to notice her metabolism changing. She had gained her usual 5 pounds over the summer because of numerous summer parties, backyard barbecues, fruity cocktails and beer.

She typically didn’t drink during the week, but it was just too easy to crack open a cold beer when she was doing yard work under the summer sun. When friends would stop over, she’d mix up some drinks. I’m sure we can all relate to these same situations.

In the past, Shelly would go back to her normal routine when fall arrived. The 5 pounds would come right off. She would only drink on the weekends and she’d begin a better routine of regular exercise and sleep.

This year, however, something was different: She didn’t lose the 5 pounds and she actually started gaining weight.

Knowing that the holidays weren’t far off, she was worried her weight would get out of control and she would have even bigger issues.

Shelly was smart to be worried.

Once belly fat starts, it gets a mind of its own and can get out of control quickly. That’s exactly what was happening to Shelly—she was gaining all of her weight in her belly. I knew she was concerned and disappointed.

She said she always had a flat belly, but now that was changing.

Icky, sticky  

A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine proves what we already know: Belly fat leads to early death in men and women by increasing our risk of heart attack and stroke—up to 10 years earlier than it might have happened if we didn’t have any belly fat.

The reality is most of us will die of heart attack or stroke at some point. But belly fat makes it happen sooner.

How? Belly fat is deep on the inside, wrapped around your bowels and liver, and craving sugar. As belly fat grows, your liver uses it to make bad cholesterol, and then the belly fat produces inflammatory chemicals to make your blood vessel linings sticky.

At the same time, the fat makes your body insulin-resistant, raising insulin levels and keeping blood sugar high by making you crave sugar.

This combination—sticky blood vessels, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol—causes plaque to build up in the blood vessels, blocking blood flow to your brain and heart muscle. All of this can lead to heart attack and stroke, and once the belly fat gets going, it doesn’t give up easily.

Bottom line: We can’t let the belly fat start.

Back to basics

Another factor that makes belly fat grow is stress—both good stress and bad stress.

Added stress can raise insulin levels and use up stress hormones such as cortisol and DHEA. It can cause our sleep to be interrupted, leaving us sleepy and fatigued. We know that sleep deprivation leads to insulin resistance, causing us to crave and store more sugar. It’s a vicious cycle.

During Shelly’s physical, I asked if I could measure her waist circumference. Measuring waist circumference is easy, but it can feel more personal than a pelvic exam.

Here’s how it’s done: Take a tape measure and wrap it around the small of your back, over your hip bones and around your belly.

We measured Shelly’s belly and it was 39 inches. Healthy is 35 inches.

After seeing that number on the measuring tape, Shelly made it a goal to lose 4 inches of belly fat.

After hearing what I had to say about belly fat, Shelly knew she needed to get off the sugar, reduce stress in her life, and change her sleep habits.

In other words, she needed to get back to the basics.

Grow with SEEDS

By having a plan, you can succeed even during the toughest of times.

When you adopt these habits and work hard to follow them every day, it is easier to get back on track if you have a stressful day or have a sleepless night.

When I talk about the basics, I am referring to the SEEDS—Seven Essential Elements of Daily Success—concept as a way of life.

Here are the seven basic things I discussed with Shelly:

  • Drink plenty of water (eight glasses a day). Add one more for each cup of coffee or for each serving of alcohol.
  • Get plenty of sleep (seven hours a night). Take power naps if necessary to be sure you are getting enough sleep.
  • Take your vitamins daily, including Vitamin D and a multivitamin.
  • Eat a balanced diet, including plenty of healthy carbs and protein, with only one sugar treat (including alcohol).
  • Eat plenty of fiber (think vegetables) and take a fiber pill if needed.
  • Exercise regularly (30 minutes a day, with a mix of walking, aerobic activity, strength training and stretching).
  • Start a gratitude journal and do metered breathing each night before going to bed.

You may have noticed that alcohol is mentioned more than once in the list of SEEDS.

Beer, wine and liquor are all forms of alcohol, and they all contain sugar. Since alcohol is often a part of a celebration or party, it’s important to limit your other forms of sugar (pasta, white bread, cookies, etc.) if you will be consuming a drink (or two or three) that same day.

And remember to add an extra glass of water for each drink consumed.

Shelly may not have been excited to see that her waist circumference was 39 inches, but she was happy with our discussion.