There are many reasons why people gain belly fat, including poor diet, lack of exercise, and stress. Improving nutrition, increasing activity, and making other lifestyle changes can all help.
It’s a risk factor for diseases like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer
Belly fat is bad news, and not just because you’d like to show off flatter abs at the beach. More and more research is suggesting that waist size is a bigger risk factor for serious diseases than your overall body fat percentage. The main culprit: Visceral fat, the kind that’s found deep within your abdomen (as opposed to subcutaneous fat, which sits right under the skin).
In fact, research suggests that postmenopausal women on hormonal replacement therapy have lower levels of belly fat than those that aren’t. Before you rush to your doctor to get a prescription for your hormonal belly, there are natural ways to readjust your levels. Reducing sugar intake, eliminating processed foods from your diet, and avoiding things like dairy, alcohol, and caffeine can all help reset your blood sugar and insulin levels.
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.
An expanding waistline is sometimes considered the price of getting older. For women, this can be especially true after menopause, when body fat tends to shift to the abdomen.
The medical term for unhealthy fat in the belly is “visceral fat,” which refers to fat surrounding the liver and other organs in your abdomen.
If you’re gaining weight in your stomach, it could be related to your diet or it could be the result of a new medication or other health issues. INSIDER spoke to experts to determine the more common reasons you’re gaining weight in your stomach.
Even normal-weight people with excess belly fat have an increased risk of health problems.
Here are things that make you gain belly fat.
Things That Make You Gain Belly Fat
It’s possible that high levels of stress can cause weight gain and bloating. Too much stress can have a variety of negative effects on your body, including on your digestive symptom.
When you’re stressed, you can experience gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms like bloating, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea. Additionally, some researchers believe that stress may contribute to your perception of abdominal bloating.
Stress can also cause some people to “stress eat.” In fact, about 40 percent
of people increase food intake when they’re feeling stressed. It’s also possible that stress may lead to a decrease in physical activity. Along with stress eating, this can cause weight gain.
There are steps you can take to help reduce your stress levels. For instance you can try:
- getting regular exercise
- prioritizing your sleep and aiming for at least 7-8 hours rest each night
- relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises
- listening to music or writing down your thoughts
- indulging in a favorite hobby
Sugary Foods and Beverages
Many people take in more sugar every day than they realize.
High-sugar foods include cakes and candies, along with so-called “healthier” choices like muffins and frozen yogurt. Soda, flavored coffee drinks and sweet tea are among the most popular sugar-sweetened beverages.
Observational studies have shown a link between high sugar intake and excess belly fat. This may be largely due to the high fructose content of added sugars .
Both regular sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are high in fructose. Regular sugar has 50% fructose and high-fructose corn syrup has 55% fructose.
In a controlled 10-week study, overweight and obese people who consumed 25% of calories as fructose-sweetened beverages on a weight-maintaining diet experienced a decrease in insulin sensitivity and an increase in belly fat .
A second study reported a reduction in fat burning and metabolic rate among people who followed a similar high-fructose diet .
Although too much sugar in any form may lead to weight gain, sugar-sweetened beverages may be especially problematic. Sodas and other sweet drinks make it easy to consume large doses of sugar in a very short period of time.
What’s more, studies have shown that liquid calories don’t have the same effects on appetite as calories from solid foods. When you drink your calories, it doesn’t make you feel full so you don’t compensate by eating less of other foods instead.
Genetics Plays A Role In Body Type
You can’t talk about the size and structure of your body without factoring in genetics. Dr. Khalid Saeed, a doctor of osteopathic medicine, told INSIDER that genetics definitely plays a role in where you store fat.
“If your family tree shows a tendency towards apple-shaped individuals, then you may have to be extra diligent about getting enough physical activity and limiting your caloric intake,” he explained. So, how do you know if you are apple-shaped? Well, if you have a larger waist and tend to carry a lot of your weight around your abdomen, there’s a good chance you’re considered apple-shaped..
Sugary food such as cakes and candy, and drinks such as soda and fruit juice, can:
- cause weight gain
- slow a person’s metabolism
- reduce a person’s ability to burn fat
Low-protein, high-carb diets may also affect weight. Protein helps a person feel fuller for longer, and people who do not include lean protein in their diet may eat more food overall.
Trans fats, in particular, can cause inflammation and may lead to obesity. Trans fats are in many foods, including fast food and baked goods like muffins and crackers.
The American Heart Association recommends that people replace trans fats with healthy whole-grain foods, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats.
Reading food labels can help a person determine whether their food contains trans fats.
Foods containing sugar alcohols can cause abdominal bloating, diarrhea, and distention since they are difficult for our bodies to digest2
Tips to fix it: Avoid ingesting sugar alcohols and read labels to see if you are eating them unintentionally. Many sugar alcohols are added to some packaged foods to reduce the net carbs, so they are often common in “health foods”. Sugar alcohols include sorbitol, malitol, xylitol, erythritol, mannitol, lactitol, isomalt, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH). These can contribute to diarrhea and bloating, especially if you have IBS.
You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep—Or You’re Sleeping Too Much
You just can’t win! Regularly getting 5 hours of sleep a night or less has been linked to an increase in belly fat, but so has getting 8 hours or more. “We still have a caveman’s physiology,” Andersen says. “If we’re sleep deprived, our metabolism will decrease to preserve energy, and we’ll eat things we know we shouldn’t.” The search for easy energy in the form of fries or a doughnut is a relic of primitive days, when our early ancestors literally didn’t know when they’d be able to eat next. That’s why their bodies stored those quick calories as fat, particularly around the middle, she explains.
Researchers aren’t exactly sure why those who slept a lot also put on extra belly fat, but it’s possible that more time in bed equals less time being active. Everyone’s sleep needs are different, but your sleep sweet spot is probably between 7 to 9 hours a night.
Your Waistline Is Getting Bigger, But You’re Eating Right
If you’ve had a relatively flat stomach for majority of your life and then suddenly that spare tire appears overnight, it may be a sign you’ve developed a hormonal belly. “As we age, the body can become more insulin-resistant, driving your body to store fat instead of burning it off,” explains Sara Gottfried, MD, author of The Hormone Cure and The Hormone Reset Diet. “Women also become more estrogen-dominant as we move into perimenopause and beyond. Estrogen dominance promotes insulin resistance, which causes the belly fat build-up,
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.
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.
Alcohol is an inflammatory substance that can affect many parts of your body, including your digestive system. Alcohol consumption can lead to several unpleasant GI symptoms like bloating, gas, and abdominal discomfort.
Alcohol is full of empty calories. Per gram, it has almost twice as many calories as carbs or protein, yet provides no nutritional value. Because of its calorie content, increased alcohol intake can lead to weight gain.
You can prevent alcohol-related bloating and weight gain by drinking in moderation. This means one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. A standard drink is considered to be:
- 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol)
- 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol)
- 1.5 ounces of liquor (40 percent alcohol)
Trans fats are the unhealthiest fats on the planet.
They’re created by adding hydrogen to unsaturated fats in order to make them more stable.
Trans fats are often used to extend the shelf lives of packaged foods, such as muffins, baking mixes and crackers.
Trans fats have been shown to cause inflammation. This can lead to insulin resistance, heart disease and various other diseases .
There are also some animal studies suggesting that diets containing trans fats may cause excess belly fat.
At the end of a 6-year study, monkeys fed an 8% trans fat diet gained weight and had 33% more abdominal fat than monkeys fed an 8% monounsaturated fat diet, despite both groups receiving just enough calories to maintain their weight.
Stress Leads To Increased Fat Storage
Stress is a normal part of life. That said, it’s important to find productive ways to manage stress, so it doesn’t negatively impact your health
Registered dietitian Michelle Shapiro, RD told INSIDER that one of the root causes of abdominal weight gain is stress, and in order to address the issue, you need to target stress first.
When you experience stress, you release cortisol (the fight or flight hormone). Shapiro said repeated excess circulating cortisol could lead to increased abdominal fat storage.
“Cortisol enables the body to mobilize fat and energy from other areas and direct them to the abdomen, where cortisol can make energy readily available for vital organs,” she explained.
A 2013 study links weight gain to short sleep duration, which could lead to an excess of belly fat. However, causality cannot be inferred from this study.
Short duration of sleep is linked to an increase in food intake, which may play a part in the development of abdominal fat.
Not getting enough good sleep also may, potentially, lead to unhealthy eating behaviors, such as emotional eating.
Potential Problem: Gas-Forming Foods
Some foods are naturally more gas producing than other foods. Cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.) and legumes (beans, peas, etc.) can cause gas and bloating due to an indigestible sugar called raffinose3. Gut bacteria feed on this undigested carbohydrate and produce methane gas, resulting in gas and abdominal bloating.
Tips to fix it: Moderate your consumption of cruciferous vegetables and legumes if you are prone to digestive problems. If you eat multiple servings of these foods each day, try cutting back a bit to see if this helps. If you choose to eat these foods, consider not eating them raw very often (in the case of cruciferous vegetables), or make sure they are cooked thoroughly and properly (in the case of beans) so they are easier to digest. Another option is to use a digestive supplement like Beano that helps with the breakdown of raffinose.
How To Naturally Reset Your Hormones
The main problem with a fighting hormonal imbalance that causes belly fat is that all the issues are cyclical—one issue leads to another and back. That’s why many women have a hard time whittling away a hormonal belly. Aside from medical intervention, there are lifestyle changes you can make to break the cycle and reset your hormones.
“Making conscious day-to-day decisions about what you eat, the amount of exercise you get, how many hours you sleep, and how you handle stressful situations, is key to combatting hormonal imbalances,” Dr. Montoya says. Dr. Gottfried suggests overhauling what you eat. “I recommend 40 days of cutting out sugar, gluten, dairy, alcohol, and caffeine,” she says. “Aim to eat one pound of vegetables daily, such as cruciferous vegetables, along with anti-inflammatory protein. The goal is to reduce nutritional stress by cutting out highly reactive foods.”
In addition to changing your diet, Dr. Gottfried recommends intermittent fasting. She prefers the 16:8 method. Every day, there’s an eight-hour eating window and 16-hour overnight fast. But you can decide on what period of time you’d like to fast, whether it’s morning or evening. She also advises doing HIIT workouts and getting at least seven to eight hours each night. “Poor quality of sleep wrecks havoc on your internal biochemistry and you are more likely to overeat when you are tired,” she says.
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.5
However, in the 25 years leptin and obesity have been studied, it is still not fully understood how they two are interrelated.
It’s possible that some types of medications can cause abdominal bloating and weight gain. Some examples include:
Corticosteroids are used to reduce inflammation in your body. Fluid retention as well as weight gain, particularly around the abdomen and face, are potential side effects of oral corticosteroids. Other possible side effects include:
- high blood pressure
- swelling of the lower legs
- mood swings
- increased eye pressure (glaucoma)
- slow wound healing
- increased risk of infections
Oral contraceptives can also cause bloating. While you may gain some weight on these medications, studies have indicated that they don’t lead to major weight gain. Other possible side effects of oral contraceptives include:
- spotting between periods
- breast tenderness
Antibiotics treat bacterial infections. Because they can also affect bacteria in your digestive tract, they can cause GI symptoms like bloating. Other potential side effects of antibiotics include:
- nausea or vomiting
- abdominal pain
- reduced appetite
Because GI bacteria can play a role in weight gain, it’s also possible that changes to GI bacteria through the use of antibiotics may contribute to weight gain. However, more research is needed in this area.
A sedentary lifestyle is one of the biggest risk factors for poor health.
Over the past few decades, people have generally become less active. This has likely played a role in the rising rates of obesity, including abdominal obesity.
A major survey from 1988-2010 in the US found that there was a significant increase in inactivity, weight and abdominal girth in men and women.
Another observational study compared women who watched more than three hours of TV per day to those who watched less than one hour per day.
The group that watched more TV had almost twice the risk of “severe abdominal obesity” compared to the group that watched less TV.
One study also suggests that inactivity contributes to the regain of belly fat after losing weight.
In this study, researchers reported that people who performed resistance or aerobic exercise for 1 year after losing weight were able to prevent abdominal fat regain, while those who did not exercise had a 25–38% increase in belly fat
Potential Problem: Bacterial Imbalances
Bacterial imbalances in the digestive system can cause digestive disturbances like bloating, diarrhea, and excess gas. SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) can be one cause of digestive distress in people with IBS and other disorders8 9.
Tips to fix it: Good quality probiotics and fermented foods are beneficial for many areas of health, including inflammation, inflammatory bowel disease, and IBS10. In some cases of SIBO, doctors may need to treat patients with an antibiotic and then probiotics to bring the intestinal flora back into balance. If you suspect you have SIBO, visit a gastroenterologist to get a diagnosis.
Cushing’s syndrome is a condition in which your body produces too much cortisol. You may be familiar with cortisol as your “stress hormone.” Cortisol can impact all areas of your body and is important for processes like:
- responding to stress
- maintaining blood pressure
- reducing inflammation
- regulating the way nutrients are turned into energy
Most of the time, Cushing’s syndrome develops due to the prolonged use of corticosteroids, which are used to treat conditions like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Specific types of tumors can also cause the condition.
Because of the broad action of cortisol throughout the body, Cushing’s syndrome has a wide variety of symptoms. Two of them are weight gain and accumulation of fat around the abdomen. Other symptoms include:
- round face (moon face)
- thin arms and legs
- fat accumulation at the base of the neck
- easy bruising
- poor wound healing
- stretch marks, particularly on the abdomen
- muscle weakness
- excess hair on the face, chest, and abdomen (women)
- periods that are irregular or absent (women)
- reduced libido (men)
- erectile dysfunction (men)
If Cushing’s syndrome is caused by corticosteroid medications, your doctor will likely reduce the dose or recommend an alternative medication. Surgery can be performed to remove tumors that are causing Cushing’s syndrome.
Getting adequate dietary protein is one of the most important factors in preventing weight gain.
High-protein diets make you feel full and satisfied, increase your metabolic rate and lead to a spontaneous reduction in calorie intake .
In contrast, low protein intake may cause you to gain belly fat over the long term.
Several large observational studies suggest that people who consume the highest amount of protein are the least likely to have excess belly fat .
In addition, animal studies have found that a hormone known as neuropeptide Y (NPY) leads to increased appetite and promotes belly fat gain. Your levels of NPY increase when your protein intake is low.