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What causes belly fat? 6 causes and ways to lose it.

By Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LDN, CLEC, CPT

Reviewed by Monica Ropar, Certified Nutritionist

If you carry extra weight around your midsection, you’re not alone. Considering how many “flat belly” remedies are advertised on magazine covers and sold to us on social media, combatting abdominal fat is clearly a challenge people are interested in tackling. 

 

Belly fat is caused by many factors including your genetics, activity level, diet, alcohol consumption and more. Thankfully, there are some effective and science-backed ways to combat extra weight around your middle. If you want to learn more about what causes belly fat, why having too much can be dangerous, and what you can do to take control of your health journey, read on.


What is belly fat?

While many of us know that belly fat is excess fat that is stored in our midsection, we may not truly understand how it differs from fat in other areas of our body.

 

Generally speaking, fat can act as storage for excess energy, a source of natural warmth, and a layer of protection for our bones and other organs. There are two different types of fat:

 

Subcutaneous fat is the most common — it’s fat that is found just under the skin. According to Harvard Health, subcutaneous fat makes up about 90% of most people's fat.[1] Common places you might store this type of fat are your buttocks and thighs.

 

Visceral fat, however, is different. It’s found deep inside the abdomen wall and surrounds certain organs such as the liver and intestines. This type of fat is stored in the belly region and is linked to harmful health outcomes. 

Why is belly fat so dangerous?

Combatting belly fat is a common goal that many people share, especially once summertime comes along and people are donning their swimsuits more often. While people may be motivated to minimize their midsection for cosmetic reasons, doing so may also help them avoid some potentially dangerous health effects later on in life. 

 

Certain fat cells, specifically visceral fat cells, have the ability to secrete hormones and other molecules that may not support our health. 

 

One example of this is the cytokine protein that can be secreted by these specific visceral fat cells. This protein is linked to the development of chronic inflammation, which can increase a person’s risk of heart disease and certain cancers.2

 

Additionally, visceral fat secretes a protein called retinol-binding protein 4 (RBP4), which has been shown to increase insulin resistance, which may lead to glucose intolerance and Type 2 diabetes.3

 

Data has shown that visceral fat can be linked to an increased risk of developing conditions including metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, prostate, breast and colorectal cancers,4 Alzheimer’s disease and Type 2 diabetes.5 Some data has even suggested that having more visceral fat may be linked to an increased risk of early death, particularly for men.6

How do you know if you have too much belly fat?

Knowing whether you are carrying too much weight in your midsection can be as simple as wanting to see some physical changes. But from a health perspective, there are specific criteria that people may meet that indicate they are carrying a bit too much weight in their middle, and they are at an increased risk of developing unsavory outcomes.

 

Your risk for developing metabolic complications like diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases can increase if your waist circumference is:7

 

  • More than 40 inches for men
  • More than 35 inches for non-pregnant women

 

Wondering how to take measurements? To measure your waist circumference, you can follow these steps:

 

  • Place a tape measure around your middle, just above your hipbones, while you are standing
  • Make sure the tape is horizontal around the waist
  • Keep the tape tight around the waist, but do not compress the skin
  • Measure your waist just after you breathe out

 

What causes belly fat?

If you have more belly fat than you wish, the good news is that many factors are in your control. Here are some of the main causes:

 

1. Sedentary lifestyle

Not including physical activity in your lifestyle can contribute to your belly fat accumulation.8

2. Diet

Eating large quantities of foods with added sugars and trans fats can increase abdominal obesity. Following a low-fiber diet may lead to this condition as well. 

3. Gut Microbiota

We all have live bacteria that live in our gut. Some support our health in various ways, while others may pose health risks (like excessive amounts of E. Coli). Having the right balance of bacteria in our gut, also known as a healthy gut microbiome, may support fat accumulation in the belly region.

4. Genetics

If you have a family history of having central abdominal obesity, you may inherit the same condition.9

5. Alcohol

Alcohol contains empty calories, can reduce inhibitions and contribute to overeating, and increase cortisol levels — all factors contributing to weight gain in the abdominal area. Data shows that the more alcohol a person consumes, the more belly fat they develop.10

 

alcohol-causes-belly-fat

6. Not following a regular meal pattern

Not following a regular meal pattern such as skipping breakfast and eating a heavy dinner, may contribute to elevated stress and negative changes to the gut microbiota — factors that can play a role in visceral fat accumulation.11

How to lose belly fat – science-based approaches

If you are struggling with unwanted weight around your midsection, naturally, you may be wondering about the best ways to lose belly fat. The good news is that there are some steps you can take that may be just the ticket to losing those stubborn pounds around your middle.  

 

To support your quest to have a healthy waist circumference, here are some evidence-based tips to try.

 

1. Limit your TV time12

Data shows that for every 1.5 hours of TV watching, people see 3.5 cm3 more visceral abdominal fat. Limiting your TV time may help you see improvements in lower belly fat.

 

Try this: Instead of turning on the television after dinner, try and start a new ritual. Some ideas include taking a family walk around the neighborhood, journaling, meal prepping or practicing some gentle yoga.

 

2.  Limit your alcohol intake13

High alcohol intake is linked to a high waist circumference. Limiting (or avoiding) alcohol may help you in your quest to lowering your belly fat.

 

Try this: Swap alcoholic beverages for a tasty mocktail. Flavor your water by infusing it with your favorite fruits, try unsweetened iced tea or bubbly water with lemon and lime for a refreshing twist. Check out these other 11 healthy drinks for weight loss.

3. Include physical activity in your lifestyle14

Exercise can help you burn calories and may help make positive changes to your gut microbiota, two factors that play a role in visceral fat accumulation.

 

Try this: If you’re new to activity, start small. Walking is a great way to get moving and requires minimal equipment. You can start with 10 minutes a day and gradually add on from there. Every bit counts! Here are 12 tips to start a walking plan for weight loss.

4. Include soluble fiber in your diet15

Fiber can help people feel fuller for a longer period of time, helping them lose weight. And consuming soluble fiber, or fiber that becomes viscous when it comes in contact with water, may have a profound impact on belly fat. Data shows that for a 10-gram increase in daily soluble fiber intake there is a 3.7% lower risk of gaining belly fat.15

 

Try this: Some excellent sources of soluble fiber include apples, broccoli, Brussel sprouts and carrots. Here are a few ways you can incorporate these foods into your day. For breakfast, try a hot bowl of unsweetened oatmeal with cinnamon. Add some sautéed carrots, steamed broccoli or roasted Brussel sprouts to your lunch or dinner. Choose healthy snacks like a crunchy apple or carrot sticks in-between meals to make sure you get enough soluble fiber throughout your day.

 

oatmeal-helps-with-belly-fat

5. Include Protein In Your Diet16

Quality protein intake is inversely related to abdominal fat. Including foods like lean beef, chicken, fish, tofu, and beans can give you a boost of this important macro, which may help you combat your belly fat.

 

Try this: At each meal, identify one protein source on your plate — plant-based or an animal protein. Whether it’s nut butter on your toast for breakfast or grilled chicken with your roasted vegetables for dinner, aim for a quarter of your plate to be filled with a protein source. Fill the other quarter of your plate with a healthy carb option like whole grain rice, sweet potato or whole wheat pasta, and the other half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables.

 

Want more ideas? Here are the best foods to reduce abdominal fat for men.

6. Include probiotics in your diet17

Including probiotics, or live bacteria that offer a health benefit can help support a healthy microbiota. Research suggests that including certain strains — such as those found in yogurt — may have lowering effects on overall body composition.17

 

Try this: You can find probiotics in foods beyond yogurt. From fermented vegetables and sauerkraut to miso and tempeh, there are lots of options. If you do opt for yogurt, make sure to read the nutrition label — it should include ‘live and active cultures.'

Bottom Line

Having too much belly fat is a concern that many people share, and it can be a result of many different factors, including your dietary choices, your physical activity, your gut health, and even your genetics. Having too much fat in your midsection can put you at an increased risk of developing many unsavory health outcomes, including Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. While there isn’t a magic bullet to getting rid of that excess belly fat, making small changes in your lifestyle and diet may profoundly impact your health and help you see the results you want to see.  

 

Ready for a healthy lifestyle change? Jenny Craig can help! With our most effective program ever, you can lose up to 18 pounds and 5 inches off your waist in your first 4 weeks.‡ Learn more about Max Up today!

 

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‡First 4 weeks only. Average weight loss in a study was 15 pounds and average waist size reduction was 3 inches for those who completed the program.

 

Sources

[1] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/taking-aim-at-belly-fat

[2] https://bit.ly/39oUgxo

[3] https://bit.ly/3NUppbn

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3473928/

[5] https://obesity.imedpub.com/associations-among-visceral-obesity-type-2-diabetes-and-dementia.php?aid=17696

[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16571861/

[7] https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/index.html

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5315590/

[9] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8856394/#:~:text=Conclusion%3A The majority of inter,resistance%2C diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

[10] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33998940/

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6520689/

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5315590/

[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2984859/

[14] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5357536/

[15] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21681224/

[16] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22284338/

[17] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1756464612001399

 

Quote

 

This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written and reviewed by certified professionals. 

 

Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on the topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Certified Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy. 

 

This article contains trusted sources including scientific, peer-reviewed papers. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source. 

 

 

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Contributors

Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LDN, CLEC, CPT

By Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LDN, CLEC, CPT

Lauren is an award-winning registered dietitian-nutritionist for almost 20 years. Throughout her career, she has worked in various settings, including inpatient, outpatient, and industry. She currently runs a consulting and freelance writing business and contributes to outlets like VeryWell Health, POPSUGAR, EatThis.com, and TheKitchn.com. 

Favorite healthy snack: fresh orange slices and cottage cheese and a sprinkle of cinnamon
Monica Ropar, Certified Nutritionist

Reviewed by Monica Ropar, Certified Nutritionist

Monica has over 15 years of experience with Jenny Craig, as an expert nutrition and program resource. She develops content, training, tools and strategies for the program to support clients throughout their weight loss journey, and offers inspiration, weight loss tips, lifestyle strategies and motivation.  Monica holds a Bachelor of Science degree with a double major in Dietetics and Exercise, Fitness & Health from Purdue University and continues to stay current on weight management research, consumer trends and healthcare developments.

Favorite healthy snack: raw veggie sticks with homemade hummus

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