Can you choose where you lose weight?

It’s Sod’s Law of weight loss: fat comes off the places you don’t want (hello, fried eggs) but not the places you do. Thankfully, new science means that could all be about to change


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If you’ve ever been on a diet then you’ll know this story well:

Woman restricts kilojoules. She trains like an Olympic athlete. She applies lotions promising “slimmer thighs and a tighter bum” while submitting her body to massages and machines that profess to blast fat and target tricky bumps and lumps, and yet, after all that effort, all that pain, all that money – the one place she wanted to drop a few kilos [thighs/bum/insert appropriate body part here] she can’t.

We’ve all been told how fat works. Essentially, if the number of kilojoules in beats kilojoules out, you put on weight. But a growing number of experts on the forefront of weight loss research are starting to agree: hormones may play a greater part than was once thought when it comes to how and where we store fat.

Well, what does that mean for us and virtually every other woman who has subscribed to the multibillion-dollar diet industry at some point? It means that at last, we may be able to wage a direct weight-loss assault on the areas we want. Best news ever.

Let’s rewind a bit first. A study in the British Journal of Nutritionsuggested women generally have a larger proportion of body mass as fat, and are more likely to deposit fat subcutaneously (ie, under the skin) and on their lower half, than men. So we have always accepted men will have a paunch while women will always be saddled with, well, saddlebags and thighs. However, it turns out it may be possible to target excessive fat in particular areas by making lifestyle choices that help realign hormonal imbalances, says nutritionist Max Tomlinson, who insists “hormones exert a powerful influence on body-fat distribution in humans.”

We’ve known for a long time there’s a relationship between hormones and body shape. “Remember your teenage years?” asks Richard Ross, an endocrinology lecturer at Sheffield University. “You can’t really tell much difference between boys and girls, in terms of body composition before puberty. At puberty, boys’ testosterone switches on and they grow taller and get bigger muscles, whereas girls’ ovaries switch on, releasing oestrogen and they get breasts and buttocks.” Plus spots, PMS and crushes on their PE teachers.

The body’s signature

Charles Poliquin is a Canadian strength coach, who over the past few years has caused quite a storm with his Biosignature Modulation Method. He believes you can take an individual’s hormonal blueprint (their “Biosignature”) by taking fat measurements in 12 specific sites on the body using calipers. The data is then used to investigate where hormones are out of whack. Then, believes Poliquin, you can use nutrition, supplements and strength training to realign hormonal imbalances and target individual “fat spots”.

If it sounds radical, well, it is. And Poliquin is not without his critics. While Olympic athletes and even Hollywood stars are said to have adopted his revolutionary approach to training and weight loss, (Superman’s Henry Cavill’s killer arms were said to be targeted with Poliquin’s program) there are others who are understandably sceptical.

Skin scientist Peter Roberts has done extensive academic research into the concept of Biosignature. Yet he remains unconvinced: “There’s very little clinical evidence, although there is lots of anecdotal evidence [to suggest Poliquin’s method works]. I don’t really believe hormones determine whether you lose fat from your bottom or anywhere else. In fact, I’d say if you ran some hormone tests on these people you’d probably find the hormone balance is perfectly normal.”

Poliquin begs to differ. High tricep fat levels, he insists, indicate low testosterone levels. This matches findings from researchers in California, who saw a loss in fat in the upper arm when elevating testosterone to above-normal levels in healthy young men. And before you go thinking, “Well, that’s all about men, but what about me?”, then hold up. “Testosterone is produced by both sexes,” says Tomlinson. “That means if you have excessive fat on your triceps you may have low levels of testosterone.”

Ross agrees: “Androgens [male hormones like testosterone] do burn off body fat in both intra-abdominal and subcutaneous areas. If you have an increase in intra-abdominal fat [ie, a big stomach] that could be indicative of cortisol excess, growth hormone deficiency and in men it may be associated with testosterone deficiency.”

He also clarifies the link between the thyroid hormone thyroxine and fat gain: “Essentially, thyroxine is important for your metabolic rate. So if you have a deficiency in thyroid hormones, you tend to put on fat and find it difficult to lose. And if you have excessive thyroid hormones you burn off fat and muscle.” But Poliquin’s analysis takes it a step further and suggests thyroid-hormone imbalance is related to upper-back fat. Tomlinson agrees: “Hypothyroidism [low thyroid function] can cause fat deposits around the bra area, as well as overall weight gain. Not to mention fatigue, depression, low body temperature, constipation, decreased memory and poor concentration.” Great.

Fat around the stomach area, he also suggests, has a direct correlation with an increase in stress hormones. “Stomach fat is a clear sign of an adrenal problem and, more specifically, of the over-production of the stress hormone cortisol. Medium to long-term stress elevates cortisol levels, which leads to raised blood sugars and the deposition of blood sugars on the abdomen as stubborn fat.” So you can blame your boss for that pot belly.

Recent science backs this up: a study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine charted the results when 59 healthy, premenopausal women were exposed to three lab stress sessions and one rest session over the course of four days. The 29 of those women who had a high waist-to-hip ratio (ie, held more fat in that area) found the challenges more threatening, performed worse and – lo and behold – secreted a lot more cortisol than the 30 (leaner) women with a low waist-to-hip ratio. The conclusion: central fat distribution is related to greater psychological vulnerability
to stress and cortisol reactivity.

The role of toxins

But, according to a study published in Obesity, stomach fat can also be related to environmental factors. It found that having high levels of the environmental toxin PCB (a stable man-made organic compound used in industry until it was mostly banned in 1986, but which is still found in detectable levels in animals, particularly non grass-fed animals), fish (tuna and swordfish, for example, which tend to live longer and therefore face greater exposure times) and humans was related to a high proportion of fat in the abdomen.

“These findings may indicate that PCB189, which was also related to developing diabetes, may be of significance in how fat is stored in the body,” says study author Monica Lind.

Similarly, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectiveslinked a chemical found in non-stick pans and water-resistant fabrics to an under-functioning thyroid.

So, what’s a girl to do? “What I prescribe is a three-pronged approach that includes targeted exercise and corrective eating in addition to taking specific supplements,” says Tomlinson, who insists we can’t get enough vital nutrients from modern foods. Poliquin also believes in taking supplements to counteract the effect of ingesting inevitable environmental toxins, suggesting that natural supplements, such as glycine, vitamin C, selenium and N-acetyl cysteine (NAC).

The UK Food Standards Agency, while agreeing that “PCBs are found at low levels in all foods, including foods that are important sources of nutrients”, disagrees: “The agency’s advice is that the benefits of a healthy, balanced diet, outweigh any risks from dioxins and PCBs.”

So what should we believe? Best to ask someone who’s tried it: Katie Dixon from the UK first had her Biosignature test done at the start of 2012 and ended up winning the country’s strongest woman under 75kg in September of the same year. She was so impressed that she’s now signed up to become a Poliquin practitioner herself.

Initially, she was struggling with fat around her hamstring (you know, the type of fat around the back of your thighs). Poliquin puts fat stored here down to too many toxins in the body. So Dixon, followed a 12-week liver protocol, taking various supplements supposed to help boost liver function (because the liver is the primary detoxifying organ in our bodies) and says: “After completing it, my hamstring readings were the lowest they had ever been. Nothing else changed, my diet stayed the same but the supplements I took helped me strip some of the fat from my legs.”

The role of vitamins

The problem remains that we don’t actually know for sure whether these changes are definitely the result of supplementation (they could be psychosomatic, for example). Even Poliquin devotees, like Dixon’s personal trainer James Smith, often believe that supplements should be handled with care:

“For most women, there’ll be a big improvement in hamstring fat levels with an increase in fibre, green vegetables and the removal of sugar from the diet… I’d try to get everything else on track before we look at supplementation. Nobody takes enough omega-3s, nobody produces enough magnesium or zinc; I’d suggest those whether you’re an elite-level athlete or a couch potato. A bit of vitamin B might help, too. But the lifestyle changes, such as eating the right things at the right time and recovering effectively from the training sessions, are the most important things in losing fat.”

In fact, he insists that sleep is the unsung hero when it comes to getting rid of fat in those stubborn areas: “Regulating your sleep patterns is really important, as sleep is one of the most powerful ways your body regulates hormones.”

It’s still an ongoing argument, but for now we do know these four study-backed tips, below, will go some way to targeting your stomach. And that’s not a bad place to start, right?