7 Causes of Belly Fat

Woman doing abs exercise on fitness ball
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Belly fat is the accumulation of abdominal fat that results in increased waist size. It is also known as central adiposity or abdominal obesity. Body fat, also known as adipose tissue, serves essential functions. For example, it cushions and insulates the body from extreme temperatures. Due to its function in hormone production, adipose tissue is considered an endocrine organ.

There are two main types of adipose fat that can accumulate around the abdomen: visceral (which is located around the organs) and subcutaneous (which is found beneath the skin). Visceral fat surrounds multiple vital organs, including the stomach, intestines, and liver. When too much visceral fat is present, however, it starts to pose problems.

Both types of body fat are associated with cardiometabolic disease potential; however, visceral fat is more strongly linked to increased metabolic risk factors, insulin resistance, inflammation, and overall mortality. While there are many causes of belly fat, rest assured that there are multiple healthy ways to reduce it and the health risks it poses.

What Causes Belly Fat

There are a host of potential causes of belly fat.

Calorie Surplus

One of the most common causes of belly fat is consuming more calories than your body needs. With more and more Americans living less active and more sedentary lifestyles, the effects of excess calories increases. No matter how active a person is, if they consistently eat more calories than their body needs every day, the energy imbalance causes weight gain.

Metabolism

As we age, our metabolism naturally slows down, meaning we burn fewer calories, and total body fat gradually increases. Women tend to gain a higher fat percentage than men as they get older. 

Body Fat Distribution

In people who experience menopause, estrogen levels drop which can change body fat distribution. This causes more fat to be directed to the midsection as opposed to the lower body.

Genes

Heredity can also be a factor. You might be genetically predisposed to gain weight in your midsection more than other parts of your body.  

How our genes interact with the environment must also be considered when it comes to obesity. Humans evolved to survive famine by eating plentifully when food was available since they weren’t always sure when their next meal would be. Today, that biological drive may be working against us. This is called the “thrifty genotype” hypothesis.

Hormones

Hormones and hormonal changes can also affect belly fat accumulation. Leptin, a hormone that prompts feelings of fullness, is positively correlated to how much fat the body stores.

Early studies about leptin suggested that as body fat and leptin levels increased, the amount of leptin absorbed through the blood-brain barrier would decrease due to resistance. Thus, the signals regulating body weight would be reduced.

However, in the 25 years leptin and obesity have been studied, it is still not fully understood how they two are interrelated.

Mental Health

Everyday stress can also be a factor in weight gain. High levels of cortisol (also known as the stress hormone) over a long period of time are "strongly related" to abdominal obesity, research shows. This relationship also works in the reverse, as more belly fat usually leads to an increase in cortisol, triggering a sequence of aggravating weight cycling events. 

Some mental health conditions are also linked to weight gain. For example, research has found an obesity rate of 60% in people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Weight gain can stem from both the mental illness itself and the medications used to treat it.

Additionally, when we become stressed, we tend to find solace in comfort foods (which are commonly processed carbs and foods high in saturated fat). Overeating processed, high-fat foods can play a role in weight gain both around the stomach area and other parts of the body.

Medication

Another common cause of abdominal weight gain is medication. Various antidepressants and antipsychotics may be the root of weight gain, as well as some anti-seizure medications and corticosteroids.

Many prescription drugs are taken due to diseases related to obesity, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Some diabetes medications, such as insulin, sulfonylurea, and thiazolidinediones, were found to cause significant weight gain when compared to the placebo. Beta-blockers and certain calcium channel blockers often used to treat hypertension have also been known to cause an increase in weight.

How to Measure Belly Fat

Measuring your waist circumference is a simple way to tell if you are carrying more abdominal fat than is considered healthy.

Women with a waist measurement of more than 35 inches or men with a waist measurement of more than 40 inches may have a higher risk of disease. Talk to your doctor about your waist circumference and ask about corresponding risks at your next appointment.

Is Belly Fat Dangerous?

If you carry excess fat around your waist, you are more likely to develop health problems than if you carry fat mainly in your hips and thighs. Belly fat, specifically visceral fat, can significantly increase your chances of developing a number of serious health issues, including:

  • All-cause mortality
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Certain types of cancers
  • High blood pressure
  • High LDL ("bad") cholesterol
  • Low HDL ("good") cholesterol
  • Sleep apnea
  • Type 2 diabetes

Understanding the importance of belly fat and the risks associated with a bigger midsection may help you to start a program to reduce your belly fat and improve your health.

How to Reduce Belly Fat

You can reduce belly fat in several different ways. The best approach may include a combination of these tips, including seeking help from a healthcare provider.

Eat a Healthy, Balanced Diet

There are many nutritionally sound ways to lose weight, but it may take some trial and error to figure out what works for you, as there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

For many people, focusing on consuming more complex carbohydrates (like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) and less refined carbohydrates (such as white bread, white pasta, and sugary beverages) can be a simple strategy to work towards a healthier diet.

Some may find success with swapping out animal proteins that are high in saturated fats (like beef) for plant-based proteins such as soy (tofu, tempeh, and edamame), beans and lentils, quinoa, and nuts and seeds.

A registered dietitian can help you determine the best healthy eating pattern to reach your desired weight loss goals.

Incorporate Exercise Into Your Daily Routine

Weight gain can be a result of sedentary living as well as eating more calories than you burn in a day. Exercising regularly can help contribute to weight loss and healthy weight maintenance long-term. You can vary the type of workout you do from aerobic exercise such as running, biking, and walking, to anaerobic options like resistance training and weight-lifting.

Before making any dietary changes or starting a weight loss program, be sure to consult with your doctor.

Find Ways to Reduce Your Stress

There is a dual relationship between a rise in cortisol levels and weight gain but there are plenty of stress-relieving strategies you can employ to help counteract it. Strategies may include meditating daily, adding yoga workouts to your exercise plan, and spending time in nature.

Get Sufficient Sleep

Sleeping an adequate amount is crucial for successful weight loss. The CDC recommends adults sleep for at least seven hours a night.

A 2014 study found that a lack of sleep can cause people to choose high-calorie and high-carbohydrate foods that have weight-gain causing effects.  What’s more, not getting enough sleep may cause the neurotransmitters that play a role in hunger promotion and satiety regulation to fall out of balance.

Seek Help

Losing weight for health is not always easy and may require additional support. If you're having difficulty navigating challenges, finding a trusted healthcare professional to guide and support you on this journey may be the key to success. If you feel comfortable, talk with your friends and family about your goals for added encouragement and accountability.

If you're starting an exercise plan, working out with a partner is a great way to stay motivated and may even help you exercise more.

A Word From Verywell

There are many factors that can play a role in belly fat that may or may not be in your control, including burning fewer calories than consumed, metabolism, fat distribution, genetics, hormones, and stress. 

Doing what you can to reduce belly fat is a good way to minimize your risk of developing diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Make sure to speak with your physician if you are concerned about belly fat, especially before beginning any new weight loss plan.

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