6 Causes of Belly Fat

Woman doing a sit up

Aja Koska / Getty Images

While gaining weight can happen for several reasons, where fat shows up on your body can make a difference in your overall health. Belly fat, or abdominal fat, is visceral fat—fat that accumulates around your organs, including the stomach, intestines, and liver. You can't see visceral fat, but you know it's there.

The fat that you can see or grab with your hands just below the skin is subcutaneous fat. Subcutaneous fat provides insulation, energy storage, and provides a layer of protection between your skin and muscle, and bones.

No matter where you carry body fat, being overweight or obese will increase your risk for comorbidities including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other health conditions. But if you carry excess visceral fat around your waistline, the risk could be greater.

Plus, adipose tissue (body fat) is considered an endocrine organ, which means it pumps out several hormones that have an effect on how much food you eat, insulin sensitivity, inflammation, and other metabolic processes. This is where the logic of more fat equating to more health problems arises.

What Causes Belly Fat

Abdominal fat is caused by several factors including diet, lack of exercise, environmental factors, and genetics.

Calorie Surplus

Poor nutrition habits are the most common cause of abdominal fat.

While it's easy to blame one specific food group or nutrient, like sugar or carbs, for weight gain, the reality is overall calories throughout the week are the real culprit. No matter what you eat, finding the balance of moving your body and nourishing it properly (for the amount of movement you're participating in) can be tricky.

Additionally, a sedentary lifestyle requires fewer calories. That means your body doesn't have to work as hard to keep you going. Since the human body likes to conserve energy, it will slow down when energy is not needed, like when you spend more time sitting than anything else.

Metabolism

It's easy to blame a sluggish metabolism for weight gain. While it may be true for some, it's not the case for others. There are simple ways to speed up your metabolism if fat loss is your goal.

Metabolism refers to all of the ways in which the body converts fuel for energy. These processes include:

Metabolic processes:

  • Breathing
  • Circulating blood
  • Controlling body temperature
  • Contracting muscles
  • Digesting food and nutrients
  • Eliminating waste through urine and feces
  • Functioning of the brain and nerves

You can have a fast, slow, or moderate metabolism—this is largely dependent upon genetics. If you have a slow metabolism it can be frustrating when you're trying to lose weight and it's just not coming off as easily as it may have in the past. Then, there are those with a fast metabolism who can seemingly eat whatever they want and not gain a pound.

Metabolism is also affected by age. Our metabolism slows down as we get older. Many people become less active and as a result, lean body mass (muscle) is lost. Muscle is metabolically active and requires calories to maintain it. If you have less muscle and don't move as much, your metabolic rate will slow down to compensate.

The truth is, metabolism is only a small fraction of what causes weight gain. Understanding your own metabolism and how to give it a boost will help you prevent abdominal fat from creeping up over time.

Body Fat Distribution and Genetics

Unfortunately, you don't get to choose where your body stores fat. Some people are genetically inclined to store fat in their midsection, while others may store it all over their bodies. In the same sense, you can't decide where you lose fat either.

If you're knowledgeable about what to expect as you age, you can help reduce your risk of putting on weight in the abdominal region.

A 2016 review concluded that transitioning into menopause is associated with weight gain and increased abdominal fat distribution. Scientists also reported that changes in weight are due to chronological aging while changes in body composition and fat distribution are due to ovarian aging.

Environmental factors play a role in how our genes respond. The human body is predisposed to store fat, not knowing when the next meal would be. Today, that biological drive may be working against us—this is called the “thrifty genotype” hypothesis.

People often limit their food intake in an effort to lose weight. If you're on a low-calorie diet for too long, the body senses food scarcity and will slow down and store more fat. This is quite the opposite of what individuals limiting their caloric intake often have in mind.

Then, there's something called "familial predisposition," meaning the likelihood of a child becoming obese can be presumed by their family members weight.

Hormones

Fluctuations and changes within an individual's hormonal health are also associated with abdominal fat accumulation.

Low growth hormone levels as a result of hyperinsulinemia and high cardiovascular risk markers may increase visceral fat accumulation because of reduced sensitivity to lipolysis in this area.

It also believed that as body fat and leptin levels increase, the amount of leptin absorbed through the blood-brain barrier decreases, reducing the signals regulating body weight. However, in the 25 years that leptin and obesity have been studied, it is still not fully understood how they are interrelated.

Mental Health

Both physical and psychological stress can play a major role in abdominal obesity. When you experience stress, the body secretes cortisol, a stress hormone that causes fat accumulation. Research suggests that high levels of cortisol direct fat tissue to the abdominal region and increases appetite with a preference for high energy-dense foods—like comfort foods.

Other studies show similar data that high levels of cortisol over a long period of time are "strongly related" to abdominal obesity. This relationship also works in reverse, as more belly fat usually leads to increased cortisol, triggering a sequence of weight cycling.

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.

Medication

There are a host of medications that list weight gain as a common side effect. Medications for diabetes, insulin and sulfonylureas, anti-hypertensive medications, beta blockers, corticosteroids, and medications associated with mood disorders, depression, and other psychiatric illnesses have all been associated with weight gain.

How to Measure Abdominal Fat

Since abdominal fat may put you at a greater risk of many medical conditions, measuring your waist circumference can help you have a better understanding of where you stand.

How to Measure Your Waist Circumference

  • Standing, place a tape measure around your middle, just above your hipbones
  • Make sure the tape is horizontal around your waist
  • Keep the tape snug around the waist, but not compressing the skin
  • Measure your waist just after you breathe out

If your waist circumference is above the recommended values below, it may be time to have a talk with a medical professional about any health risks.

Waist circumference limits:

  • Male: greater than 40 inches
  • Female: greater than 35 inches

Waist-to-Hip Ratio is another way of determining your heart disease and other chronic condition risk. Recently, waist-to-hip ratio has been discussed as inappropriate because while waist circumference is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, hip circumference is not.

Is Abdominal Fat Dangerous?

Visceral fat is associated with metabolic disorders including metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers including prostate, breast, and colorectal cancers. Specifically, carrying excess fat around your waist increases your risk for serious health issues.

Possible Dangers of Visceral Fat

  • 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

This all sounds scary—understandably so. Take a deep breath. Just because you may be heavier in the abdominal area, does not mean you're destined for a chronic health condition.

How to Reduce Abdominal Fat

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss. And you can't spot reduce. But you can implement strategies to reduce abdominal fat in a combination of ways. Always consult your doctor before beginning any new weight loss routine.

Eat a Nutritious, Balanced Diet

Losing abdominal fat isn't as simple as cutting calories. While a calorie deficit is often necessary to lose weight, figuring out how to make that happen while finding what works for you is key. Working with a registered dietitian allows you to understand what works for your body and develop a healthy, nutritious eating pattern that helps you meet your goals.

Studies show that no matter what type of diet you choose, you can reach the same fat loss results. So in that sense, the best diet is the one that doesn't feel like a diet—creating eating habits that you can stick to is crucial for sustainability within weight management.

Focus on complex carbs (like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables), lean protein (like chicken, beef, dairy, eggs, fish, and soy), and healthy fats (like avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and nut butters) at breakfast, lunch, and dinner to feel more full and satisfied. Don't be afraid to include some of your favorite foods so you don't feel restricted.

In the end, finding a healthy balance that doesn't cut out complete food groups or foods is ideal for successful weight loss.

Incorporate Exercise Into Your Daily Routine

Exercise is helpful for maintaining a healthy body weight. The CDC recommends adults between the ages of 18 and 64 get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity physical activity such as walking, and at least two days per week of strength training activities.

Finding exercise that you enjoy doing is key. However, studies show that aerobic exercise at low to moderate intensity at least twice per week burns more visceral fat than eating habits alone.

Other studies observed effects of low-intensity aerobic activity and resistance training on visceral fat loss and found that both groups achieved results, however, the resistance training group achieved more rapid results.

To get the most out of your time and training efforts, aim to incorporate both weight bearing resistance training workouts and aerobic workouts into your weekly routine.

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

Find Ways to Reduce Stress

Stress management is important for not only your mental health, but also your physical health. We already know that stress is associated with visceral fat. Finding ways to relieve stress every day can help improve all aspects of your life including disease risk.

Strategies for stress management include mindfulness, meditation, breathing techniques, yoga, exercise, and anything else that makes you feel good. This could be as simple as spending 10 minutes per day listening to your favorite music, curling up on the couch with a good book, or soaking in a hot tub before bed.

Get Sufficient Sleep

Lack of sleep can be detrimental to weight loss. About 35% of Americans report getting less than seven hours of sleep per night, and half of Americans report they feel sleepy during the day at least three days per week.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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 with weight-gain causing effects.  What’s more, not getting enough sleep may cause the brain chemicals that play a role in hunger promotion and satiety regulation to fall out of balance.

Set up your sleep environment for success:

How to Create an Ideal Sleep Environment

  • The ideal bedroom temperature for sleeping is 65 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Loud noises can disturb sleep; try a white noise machine or ambient sound to mask outside noise
  • Keep light levels as low as possible
  • Avoid using screens—including televisions—in your bedroom
  • Choose pillows, mattress, and bedding that make you feel comfortable and cool
  • A clean environment is better for quality sleep
  • Try soothing fragrances including lavender, peppermint, and heliotropin

Seek Help

When embarking towards any goal, especially weight loss, a support system is important for success. Support can come in many forms—a trusted healthcare professional to guide you on this journey is a great place to start.

If you feel comfortable, it can be helpful to tell your friends and family about your goals for accountability and encouragement. Finding social groups online or in-person are great ways to feel connected and supported.

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

A Word From Verywell

Carrying extra fat in your abdominal region could be a cause for concern, but there is no reason for you to panic or make rash weight loss decisions. Remember to talk to a doctor about your concerns and to evaluate your risk before beginning any new weight loss plan.

Was this page helpful?
32 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mittal B. Subcutaneous adipose tissue & visceral adipose tissueIndian J Med Res. 2019;149(5):571-573. doi:10.4103/ijmr.IJMR_1910_18

  2. Coelho M, Oliveira T, Fernandes R. Biochemistry of adipose tissue: an endocrine organArch Med Sci. 2013;9(2):191-200. doi:10.5114/aoms.2013.33181

  3. National Institute of Health: What causes obesity and overweight

  4. National Library of Medicine: Metabolism

  5. Karvonen-Gutierrez C, Kim C. Association of Mid-Life Changes in Body Size, Body Composition and Obesity Status with the Menopausal Transition. Healthcare (Basel). 2016 Jul 13;4(3):42. doi:10.3390/healthcare4030042

  6. Office of Science, Office of Genomics and Precision Public Health. Behavior, environment, and genetic factors all have a role in causing people to be overweight and obese. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

  7. Nielsen LA, Nielsen TR, Holm JC. The Impact of Familial Predisposition to Obesity and Cardiovascular Disease on Childhood ObesityObes Facts. 2015;8(5):319-328. doi:10.1159/000441375

  8. Stanley TL, Grinspoon SK. Effects of growth hormone-releasing hormone on visceral fat, metabolic, and cardiovascular indices in human studies. Growth Horm IGF Res. 2015;25(2):59-65. doi:10.1016/j.ghir.2014.12.005

  9. Izquierdo AG, Crujeiras AB, Casanueva FF, Carreira MC. Leptin, obesity, and leptin resistance: where are we 25 years later?. Nutrients. 2019;11(11). doi:10.3390/nu11112704

  10. van der Valk ES, Savas M, van Rossum EFC. Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?Curr Obes Rep. 2018;7(2):193-203. doi:10.1007/s13679-018-0306-y

  11. van der Valk ES, Savas M, van Rossum EFC. Stress and obesity: Are there more susceptible individuals?. Curr Obes Rep. 2018;7(2):193-203. doi:10.1007/s13679-018-0306-y

  12. The American Institute of Stress. Stress, cortisol and abdominal fat.

  13. Taber E. Weight gain related to psychiatric treatments. National Alliance on Mental Health.

  14. Verhaegen AA, Van Gaal LF. Drugs That Affect Body Weight, Body Fat Distribution, and Metabolism. [Updated 2019 Feb 11]. In: Feingold KR, Anawalt B, Boyce A, et al., editors. Endotext [Internet]. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.; 2000-.

  15. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Assessing Your Weight

  16. Burton RF. The waist-hip ratio: a flawed index. Ann Hum Biol. 2020 Dec;47(7-8):629-631. doi: 10.1080/03014460.2020.1820079

  17. Shuster A, Patlas M, Pinthus JH, Mourtzakis M. The clinical importance of visceral adiposity: a critical review of methods for visceral adipose tissue analysis. Br J Radiol. 2012;85(1009):1-10. doi:10.1259/bjr/38447238

  18. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The health effects of overweight and obesity.

  19. Benton D, Young HA. Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2017;12(5):703-714. doi:10.1177/1745691617690878

  20. de Souza RJ, Bray GA, Carey VJ, et al. Effects of 4 weight-loss diets differing in fat, protein, and carbohydrate on fat mass, lean mass, visceral adipose tissue, and hepatic fat: results from the POUNDS LOST trialAm J Clin Nutr. 2012;95(3):614-625. doi:10.3945/ajcn.111.026328

  21. Cox CE. Role of physical activity for weight loss and weight maintenanceDiabetes Spectr. 2017;30(3):157-160. doi:10.2337/ds17-0013

  22. Center for Disease Control: Physical Activity Recommendations for Age

  23. Vissers D, Hens W, Taeymans J, Baeyens JP, Poortmans J, Van Gaal L. The effect of exercise on visceral adipose tissue in overweight adults: a systematic review and meta-analysisPLoS One. 2013;8(2):e56415. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056415

  24. Dutheil F, Lac G, Lesourd B, Chapier R, Walther G, Vinet A, Sapin V, Verney J, Ouchchane L, Duclos M, Obert P, Courteix D. Different modalities of exercise to reduce visceral fat mass and cardiovascular risk in metabolic syndrome: the RESOLVE randomized trial. Int J Cardiol. 2013 Oct 9;168(4):3634-42. doi:10.1016/j.ijcard.2013.05.012

  25. Worthen M, Cash E. Stress Management. [Updated 2021 Aug 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-.

  26. Sleep Foundation: Sleep Statistics 2022

  27. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much sleep do I need?.

  28. Greer SM, Goldstein AN, Walker MP. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brainNat Commun. 2013;4:2259. doi:10.1038/ncomms3259

  29. Sleep Foundation. Why is sleep so important to weight loss?.

  30. Sleep Foundation: Bedroom Environment

  31. Institute of Medicine (US) Subcommittee on Military Weight Management. Weight Management: State of the Science and Opportunities for Military Programs. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2004. 4, Weight-Loss and Maintenance Strategies.

  32. Rackow P, Scholz U, Hornung R. Received social support and exercising: An intervention study to test the enabling hypothesisBr J Health Psychol. 2015;20(4):763-776.