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The #1 Cause of Excess Visceral Fat, Says Science

Trying to lose belly fat? Don't do this.

As we get older, weight gained during the holidays (or any other time) becomes more difficult to lose, especially around the midsection. In the meantime, belly fat (also known as visceral fat) can cause some serious health risks.

"Your ability to keep visceral fat at bay may depend on your genes and physical makeup, which means the amount you have isn't entirely in your control. That doesn't mean you can't take steps to manage it better,' says Dr. Rashmi Byakodi. 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 Visceral Fat?

Overweight woman discussing test results with doctor in hospital.

Unlike subcutaneous fat—the jiggly fat under the skin that you can grab or pinch—visceral fat surrounds organs deep within the abdomen, like the stomach, liver and intestines. And it can seriously affect your health. According to the Cleveland Clinic, excess visceral fat raises your risk of serious metabolic disorders, including:

In women, visceral fat is also associated with breast cancer, polycystic ovary disease, and the need for gallbladder surgery, says Harvard Medical School. 

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, you're more likely to have health problems caused by visceral fat if your waist is more than 35 inches if you're a woman, or more than 40 inches if you're a man. 


Poor Diet

Woman reaching for chip and holding soda in processed junk food array on table with popcorn

The #1 cause of visceral fat is a poor diet, particularly one high in added sugar, processed foods, and simple carbs (which the body quickly converts to sugar). That leads to weight gain that's often difficult to lose, particularly in the abdominal area. "​​Fructose, or sugar, causes fat cells to mature faster, specifically in the visceral fat," says the Cleveland Clinic. "A diet filled with fructose-containing sodas or drinks not only increases your calorie intake, but it impacts how the belly fat develops." 

To reduce visceral fat, eat a diet that's rich in high-fiber fruits and vegetables and lean protein. Several studies have associated protein consumption with the loss of visceral fat. Protein is satiating and might help you reduce the number of calories you take in. Protein also seems to reduce levels of ghrelin, the hormone that increases appetite, and boost your metabolism.


Lack of Exercise

overweight woman at home lying on the floor, laptop in front of her, prepared to work out on mat according to video

"If you eat too much and exercise too little, you're likely to carry excess weight — including belly fat," says the Mayo Clinic. As we age, muscle mass declines slightly, while fat increases. Less muscle means your body burns fat at a slower rate. To fight visceral fat, exercise regularly. Moderate physical activity combined with strength training seems to work best at burning belly fat. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, including two sessions of strength training.


Too Much Stress

stressed woman

"It has been observed that people with high-stress levels and who have poor coping skills most commonly experience abdominal fat. Cortisol secretion could explain the link between stress and belly fat distribution. Abdominal obesity can be the result of psychological stress and increased cortisol release, which in turn causes belly fat over time," says Dr. Byakodi.

"Mindfulness training can help you overcome overeating tendencies and reduce the cortisol awakening response, which may lead to a reduction in belly fat over time. Look for ways to unwind if you're under a lot of stress at work or elsewhere. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are just a few examples of strategies to stay calm," recommends Dr. Byakodi. 


Not Enough Sleep

30-something woman having trouble sleeping

Researchers at Wake Forest University found that dieters who slept five hours or less every night put on 2 1/2 times more belly fat than people who slept adequately (seven to nine hours a night). And night owls beware: A 2021 study found that people who went to bed at midnight or later late had a 20% greater risk of abdominal obesity. The risk was even higher—38%—for people who went to bed between 2 am and 6 am. Scientists theorize that going to bed late might throw off circadian rhythms, causing the body to produce more belly-bulging cortisol. 




An analysis published in the BMJ Open Journal clearly indicated that smoking leads to increased belly fat. People commonly believe that quitting their smoking habit causes weight gain. This is true because smoking suppresses hunger, and quitting causes an increase in appetite and weight gain. However, this is only a transient effect; after a few weeks, your body adapts, and you begin to reap the benefits.

When you quit smoking, it brings significant improvement in your metabolic health, which results in weight loss. Quitting also reduces the risk of health complications, reduces your anxiety levels, and improves mental health. Hence, If you want to lose belly fat, along with diet changes and exercise routine, make sure you quit smoking. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael