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The #1 Cause of Belly Fat, Says Science

Learn what you can do about it.

Belly fat can be pretty stubborn and frustrating. Even if we try to watch what we eat, sometimes it refuses to budge! While belly fat is something many of us deal with, a lot of us don't really understand why it's happening and what we need to get rid of it — and the reality is what works for some, may not work for others. But the key to understanding our belly fat and finding ways to deal with it is to begin to understand why it is there in the first place. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What Is Belly Fat?

Man measuring belly fat calipers

All of us have fat in our bodies, and that's a good thing! No, it's really true! "Fats play an important role, not only in providing energy to our body, but also in the regulation of our body temperature, and production of hormones," said Rebeca Stevenson, M.S., registered dietitian and chef at ADAPT wellness center in North Miami. 

But another question remains – how does our body decide where it stores fat? "Some people have fat in their abdominal region, while others have it in their thighs and hips and other common areas," said Stevenson. Belly fat is fat accumulated in the abdominal area of the body, and is mostly known as visceral fat. "Visceral fat is not just what we see externally, but it is deep inside as it pads the spaces between our abdominal organs," said Stevenson.


Who's at Risk?

Woman technician with multipipette in genetic laboratory PCR research

Unfortunately, we have no direct control over where our body stores fat. Wouldn't that be great?! "All the fat transfer surgeries would be out of business!" said Stevenson. There are some factors that may influence where body fat gets stored, though. These include hormones, family genetics, medications, age, physical activity and diet, according to Stevenson.


When Are You at Risk?

measuring belly

When your belly fat is causing health issues, you are at risk. Prevention, or at the very least, early intervention, is key here.  "Do not wait until your BMI or waist circumference reaches a point to make you wonder if belly fat is the cause," said Dr. Brynna Connor, MD, Healthcare Ambassador at Rather, you want to address this earlier in life, and the earlier the better. 

But there are certainly some generalized red flags. "If you're male, you'll want to see your physician if your waist is above 40 inches in circumference. If you are a female, see your physician if your waist is above 35 inches," said Dr. Connor. These are generalities of course, but regardless of your weight to height ratio—your body mass index (BMI)—these are measurements that can be a quick gauge as to whether or not you should see your doctor about belly fat concerns.

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What Are the Health Risks of Belly Fat?

Man with chest pain

Visceral fat particularly can cause issues with internal organs. "It can increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, asthma, and other lung diseases. It can also increase the risk of developing colon cancer and dementia," said Dr. Connor. The belly fat isn't just stubborn, it can be absolutely lethal!

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The #1 Cause of Belly Fat Is…DIET

Couple having fast food on the couch

There's no way around it. What we're putting into our body is going to play a major role in our belly fat. "Let me start off by clarifying that there is not one food group or food that will magically increase or decrease belly fat from one day to the next," said Stevenson. "Weight and body composition are directly related to our energy consumption and expenditure," said Stevenson. If we consume more calories or energy than our body needs we will gain weight and may gain belly fat; and if we consume less calories we will lose weight and may lose belly fat."

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So, What Can We Do?

marathon. Tired female runner and man resting and breathing

This is not the sexy answer, but the best way to decrease belly fat is by making changes in your diet and physical activity. "I am going to be honest with you, in order to make changes to our body composition we need to set realistic health goals," said Stevenson. 

Start by making small changes with your food and exercise. According to Stevenson, this means prioritizing nutrient dense foods like fruits and vegetables, monitoring portion sizes, decreasing alcoholic beverages, and making physical activity part of your daily routine. "Being consistent with lifestyle changes will make the biggest difference long term," said Stevenson.  

Some good bets, according to Lisa Richards, who is a nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet, is to limit refined carbs and eat more protein. "Refined carbohydrates have many negative side effects for our health and belly fat is just one of them. White and enriched breads in particular have undergone a refining process where the fiber and beneficial nutrients are removed and, possibly, replaced with synthetic versions," said Richards, who said to instead look for whole wheat bread or oher whole grain products. 

Richards believes relying on protein to lose belly fat, and keep it off, is a more effective approach than calorie or carbohydrate restriction. "High-protein foods to consume to lose your belly fat and keep it off include lean poultry, fish, nuts, eggs, low-fat cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, chia, lentils, and quinoa," said Richards.

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Avoid Stress

young woman covering her face with her hands
Shutterstock / vmaslova

Stress is a big health risk, and in one unexpected way — it can lead to belly fat. And we don't just mean eating our feelings! Your body produces a hormone called cortisol which helps the body control and deal with stress. "If you're in a high-stress mode or situation, your body releases cortisol," said Dr. Connor. This can have a direct effect on your metabolism. When you eat, cortisol can cause any excess calories to remain around the belly, causing belly fat.


Get More Sleep

Pretty young woman on bed in modern apartment smiling after wake up

While inactivity is at the top of the heap, poor sleep does impact belly fat as well. So, try to get more regular sleep at night. In a 2020 study, those trying to lose weight who extended their sleep by an hour and a half experienced greater weight loss, reduced waist circumference, and lower insulin levels than those who extended sleep by only a half an hour. "Even if you're training hard and eating well, sleep can have a tremendous impact on your body composition," said Rob Arthur, a NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. Arthur recommends setting a bedtime that allows for 7 hours of sleep, and having a relaxing bedtime routine. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.