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Daily Habits Secretly Increasing Your Abdominal Fat, Say Pros

Here’s what doctors want you to know about belly fat.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Abdominal fat—also known as visceral fat, or belly fat—is dangerous fat stored around vital organs such as your liver and intestines. "When it comes to stubborn weight loss, one of the biggest complaints I hear about is the expanding waistline, pot belly, beer belly…in short, belly fat," says Will Cole, MD. "For many people, this is the first area of the body where weight gain shows, and the last place it wants to leave." Here are five habits secretly increasing your belly fat. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Control Your Cortisol

woman puts head down on desk, tired, stressed, burned out

Cortisol is not your enemy—in fact, it's essential. "Cortisol supports overall health," says Yufang Lin, MD. "It helps us wake up, gives us energy during the day and lowers at night to help us sleep and rest." It's when cortisol levels are constantly elevated that problems arise for your health—and your belly. "Studies have looked at this relationship between cortisol and weight extensively and have found a significant link between cortisol levels and increased weight, specifically that stubborn visceral fat in both men and women," says Dr. Cole. "In fact, one study looked at the cortisol levels of women and found that those with high levels of visceral fat had significantly greater cortisol spikes during times of stress as well as for a full hour after the stressful event had passed. Yikes!" 


Go To Bed Already

woman sleeping at night with eye mask

If you're putting off bedtime to watch just one more episode of Bridgerton/Cobra Kai/Euphoria/whatever your current binge is, look down at your belly and ask if it's worth it. "Our findings show that shortened sleep, even in young, healthy and relatively lean subjects, is associated with an increase in calorie intake, a very small increase in weight, and a significant increase in fat accumulation inside the belly," says Virend Somers, M.D., Ph.D

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Lay Off the Booze


It's called a beer belly for a reason—drinking alcohol can lead to an increase in abdominal fat. "Research has uncovered that alcohol especially decreases fat burn in the belly," says Dr. Pamela M. Peeke. "That's why you never hear about 'beer hips' – you hear about a 'beer belly.' It temporarily impairs the prefrontal cortex, the smarty-pants part of the brain that allows you to think clearly and rein in impulsivity. So after a certain amount of alcohol (and it's different for everyone), you're going to feel yourself not caring and letting it rip with food and probably drinks."

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Lay Off the Sugar, Too

Coffee and Sugar Main Picture

It's not an easy thing to do because let's face it, sugar is delicious and addictive—but it can be very inflammatory, which leads to abdominal fat. "When the body experiences inflammation and stress, the preferred storage site for fat is in and around the belly," says Brenda Rea, MD, DrPH, PT, RD. You don't need that kind of negativity in your life—or your belly.

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Keep Moving

woman jogging in the city by water

"Why do I have belly fat when I work out every day?" you might ask. Unfortunately, if you spend the majority of the day sitting, it can lead to abdominal fat (although the workouts absolutely do help mitigate it). "We know that spending long periods of time sedentary is unhealthy and a risk factor for chronic illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease," says Dr. Joe Henson, Research Associate at the University of Leicester. "Likewise, the amount of fat deposited around our internal organs may also predispose us to these diseases. Using MRI techniques and physical activity monitors we have shown that the more time spent sedentary, the stronger the association with higher levels of internal and abdominal fat. This was particularly so if the long periods of sedentary behavior were uninterrupted. Our findings also show that reaching the UK government's target of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity may offer some protection against the harmful effects of prolonged sedentary time."

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan