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The #1 Cause of "Hidden" Fat, According to Science

Experts warn these 8 things cause hidden fat.

Hidden fat, or visceral fat, is excess weight stored in the belly that's wrapped around organs like the liver and intestines. Hidden fat can increase the risk for health conditions such as heart disease, fertility problems, cancer, liver disease, type 2 diabetes and more. There are several causes of hidden fat including diet and inactive lifestyles, but there's other key factors that contribute as well. Eat This, Not That! Health talked to experts who reveal causes of hidden fat. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Ultra-Processed Foods

A woman in her 40s wearing headphones and eating popcorn while watching a movie on a streaming service on a laptop at night.

Many processed foods taste delicious and may not seem that bad for you, but according to Kaley Birge, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer with CurveFit Academy, they can cause hidden fat. "Weight loss has often been explained as a simple equation — calories in versus calories out. However in practice, it isn't as simple as it sounds. From our sedentary jobs, to the advertisements all around us, to food manufacturers designing food products to trick our brain's psychology, we can be easily fooled out of a calorie deficit. It's important to be aware of the less obvious causes of hidden calories so our fat loss efforts don't go to waste. Keep an eye out for these common causes of fat gain that are hidden in our day-to-day lives.

Ultra-processed foods are specifically engineered to be irresistible, making it hard to stop eating them. Some features of these foods include added sugar, salt, and fat. They are also usually stripped of the naturally-occurring fiber and water that whole foods have that are helpful for healthy weight management. Instead, try incorporating more whole foods in your diet such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean protein sources including beans, legumes, meat and dairy. These foods will help you feel fuller sooner and longer and naturally decrease fat accumulation from overconsumption."


Added Sugar in Food and Drink

Hungry woman looking for food in fridge

Birge says, "Added sugar in baked goods, cereals, flavored yogurts, and many beverages often contributes excess calories in our diets. Sugar sweetened beverages such as sodas and sweet teas have also been tied to increased visceral fat around the stomach area. They also provide a sugar high followed by a sugar crash, making you crave calories soon after consuming them. Instead of sugary beverages, try flavored waters, sparkling waters, unsweet tea, or zero sugar sodas." 

RELATED: Surefire Ways to Lose Abdominal Fat, Say Experts



man with glass of whiskey at home

According to Birge, "Alcohol has many avenues that can lead to hidden fat accumulation, such as increased appetite and decreased judgement sensations, increasing the hormone cortisol, and causing poor sleep quality. These can all lead to increased fat storage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that women have no more than one drink per day and men not have more than two. When you are going to drink, limit your drink consumption to the CDC guidelines, and pair the beverage with a balanced meal and glass of water."

RELATED: The #1 Cause of Excess Visceral Fat, Says Science


Not Enough Protein

Doctor measuring obese man waist body fat.

Having enough protein in your diet is important for several reasons, including cutting down on hidden fat. Birge says, "Research has correlated higher protein diets to decreased likelihood of having excess belly fat. Getting enough protein helps balance your weight by increasing fullness, slowing digestive times, and contributing to a higher resting metabolic rate. Try to incorporate more protein in your diet by making sure you have a protein food at each meal. This can be lean meat, eggs, lentils, beans, or a protein supplement such as a protein shake or bar."

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Always Read the Ingredients List

Woman in pantry with groceries, wooden rack for storing food in the kitchen.
It's important to know what you're eating and putting into your body. Jordan Trinagel a Licensed Occupational therapist and online health coach says, "Hidden fats can come in various forms especially when they are called something else. For example, an ingredient found in bread and crackers called DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid esters of monoglycerides) which is a conditioner that comes from canola and soybean oil may not be obvious, even if you are reading the ingredient list. Make sure you read the ingredient list, don't just get distracted by 'no trans fat' or other selling phrases on the front. Always check the back of any food item to find hidden oils or ingredients that could disguise themselves leading you to eat hidden fats you didn't even realize."

RELATED: Everyday Habits That Age You Faster, According to Science


Healthy Fats

Smiling woman in her kitchen holding avocado.

Trinagel says, "By now we all know about 'healthy fats' but sometimes too much of a good thing is not so good. While it is important to include healthy fats such as avocado, dairy, nuts, and unprocessed oils in your diet, if you aren't keeping track of how much you ingest, it could be a source of hidden fat in your diet."

RELATED: Health Habits You Should Stop Doing After 60, According to Science


Lifestyle Changes


If you've stopped working out or staying active, that could be a cause of hidden fat. Jake Jackson, a certified level two Crossfit Coach says, "Most people wrongly assume that gaining body fat is a result of the aging processes. They often blame their metabolism for slowing down, when this isn't the case for most healthy people. Your metabolism remains relatively stable throughout most of your adult life. It's your lifestyle that changes. This lifestyle change is the primary cause of hidden fat. The vast majority of the food you eat is converted into energy to keep your body running. This is your basal metabolic rate. The next largest chunk of energy expenditure is your physical activity, both from exercise and simply moving around, carrying your kids, and doing household chores, etc. As people age, they tend to burn less energy from physical activity. If you simply maintain your eating habits from when you were younger, and burn less energy, you will gain body fat."


"Small Changes …Can Yield Large Results"

Shot of woman nutritionist doctor writes the medical prescription for a correct diet on a desk with fruits, pills and supplements.

Jackson explains, "I always recommend that my athletes make dietary changes first, and then add in some form of exercise they like. Gradual changes are easier to stomach, and the easiest change is to cut out one piece of junk food a day. Don't eat that second cookie, or have an extra helping of macaroni. Give yourself easy wins, that you can accomplish by cleaning up your diet. Next you should add in some easy exercise, as research shows that steady state cardio is just as good as very intense interval training for fat loss purposes. Small changes done with consistency can yield large results." And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather