Belly fat is a problem area for many of us. Despite our best efforts and hours spent at the gym, losing weight in our midsection can be a challenge.
For many women, gaining weight occurs with age. Metabolism slows down, and since your body doesn’t burn as many calories, the pounds may start to gradually pile on. Along with age, there are a variety of factors that play a role. Here’s everything you need to know about the development of belly fat and how to lose it.
The Science Behind Belly Fat
Belly fat refers to "visceral fat" or "omental fat"—the fat pad that surrounds your abdominal internal organs. Having an excess amount is thought to be linked to heart disease, and metabolic syndrome, which includes diabetes and obesity. Fat cells secrete chemicals that change our metabolism.
Compared to the fat on your thighs, for example, visceral fat cells are more highly active because they are a direct food source for the internal organs, Dr. Mike Hoaglin, MD, Medical Director for DrHouse, explains. They secrete more inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that make it more difficult to lose weight and lower blood sugar, especially when too much is present.
Because the belly is so close to the liver, it is constantly sending fat into the liver and then the bloodstream, which in turn can increase cholesterol and overall markers of body inflammation. A high quantity of visceral fat also blocks beneficial hormones like adiponectin that normally help increase fat-burning and lower blood sugar.
What Causes Belly Fat In Females?
Stress can contribute to belly fat distribution too, Dr. Hoaglin adds. With stress comes the flight or flight hormones like cortisol. Cortisol causes our bodies to hold onto the fat and sugar even tighter and the belly fat has first dibs being the most active. Genetics also play a role, especially in females, as women tend to store fat viscerally.
“The main causes of abdominal obesity are poor diet—primarily, too much sugar, alcohol, and trans fat, and not enough protein,” says Dr. Mir Ali, MD, bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. “Lack of activity also plays a pivotal role. Other contributing factors include lack of sleep and genetics.”
How Do You Know If You Have Too Much Belly Fat?
A good screening tool to see if you might have excess belly fat is waist circumference. It's even better than BMI for this purpose.
Place the tape measure at belly button level, around your torso, and above the hip bones, while standing up. Make sure the tape is level to the ground. Exhale, pull the tape snug, but not pressing into skin. In general cardiovascular and metabolic risks go up with a waist size greater than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men, Dr. Hoaglin states.
How to Eliminate Excess Belly Fat
As much as we wish we could target where we lose weight, that’s not how weight loss works.
“Unfortunately, you cannot target weight loss to certain areas like your abdomen,” says Dr. Ali. “However, losing weight overall will lead to a reduction in truncal obesity.”
1. Limit refined carbs
Refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour cause your insulin levels to spike, which can contribute to more inflammation in omental fat and more strongly holding on and adding to that fat.
Talk to your doctor about a weight loss plan, Dr. Hoaglin recommends. Your doctor might suggest emphasizing foods that have a lower glycemic index. He or she may even tell you to start a ketogenic diet, where you focus on healthy fats and proteins and significantly reduce carbohydrates.
2. Eat foods high in fiber and low in sugar
Changing your eating habits and lifestyle is the most effective way to lose belly fat.
A diet high in fiber and protein as well as low in sugar is a great place to start, Dr. Ali states. Minimizing or eliminating alcohol intake is also critically important.
3. Get enough sleep and exercise regularly
Improving your sleep habits and exercising on a regular basis can lead to a positive reduction in abdominal fat, says Dr. Ali.
4. Reduce stress
Stress is another important factor. Chronic stress marinates our body in the stress hormone cortisol and leads to insulin resistance and preferential fat distribution around the abdomen, Dr. Lydia Alexander, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Enara & Vice President, Obesity Medicine Association, explains.
Practicing mindfulness, including meditation practices, can be beneficial in reducing abdominal fat.