Have years of too many beers morphed your six-pack abs into a keg? If you have a "beer belly," you are not alone. It seems beer drinkers across the globe have a tendency to grow bellies, especially as they get older, and especially if they are men.
But is it really beer that causes a "beer belly"? Not all beer drinkers have them -- some teetotalers sport large ones. So what really causes men, and some women, to develop the infamous paunch?
What Causes a Beer Belly?
It’s not necessarily beer but too many calories that can turn your trim waistline into a belly that protrudes over your pants. Any kind of calories -- whether from alcohol, sugary beverages, or oversized portions of food -- can increase belly fat. However, alcohol does seem to have a particular association with fat in the midsection.
"In general, alcohol intake is associated with bigger waists, because when you drink alcohol, the liver burns alcohol instead of fat," says Michael Jensen, MD, an endocrine expert and obesity researcher with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Beer also gets the blame because alcohol calories are so easy to overdo. A typical beer has 150 calories – and if you down several in one sitting, you can end up with serious calorie overload.
And don’t forget calories from the foods you wash down with those beers. Alcohol can increase your appetite. Further, when you're drinking beer at a bar or party, the food on hand is often fattening fare like pizza, wings, and other fried foods.
Why Does Fat Accumulate in the Belly?
When you take in more calories than you burn, the excess calories are stored as fat. Where your body stores that fat is determined in part by your age, sex, and hormones.
Boys and girls start out with similar fat storage patterns, but puberty changes that. Women have more subcutaneous fat (the kind under the skin) than men, so those extra fat calories tend to be deposited in their arms, thighs, and buttocks, as well as their bellies. Because men have less subcutaneous fat, they store more in their bellies.
Beer bellies tend to be more prominent in older people because as you get older, your calorie needs go down, you often become less active, and gaining weight gets easier.
As hormone levels decline in men and women as they age, they're more likely to store fat around the middle. Menopausal women who take hormone replacement therapy tend to have less of a shift toward more belly fat than those who do not.
Studies suggest that smokers may also deposit more fat in their bellies, Jensen says.
What’s Wrong With a Beer Belly?
Belly fat in the midsection does more than reduce your chances of winning the swimsuit competition. It's linked to a variety of health problems, from type 2 diabetes to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Carrying extra pounds in your thighs or hips is less risky than carrying them in the abdominal region. Further, subcutaneous fat that you can grab around your waist and on your thighs, hips, and buttocks is not as dangerous as the visceral fat that's found deep within the abdominal cavity surrounding your organs.
Visceral fat within the abdominal wall is frequently measured by waist circumference.
"When waist circumference exceeds 35 inches for women and 40 for men, it is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and overall mortality," Jensen says. He cautions that these numbers are simply guidelines, and recommends keeping your waist size below these numbers.
Losing Your Belly
There is no magical way to tackle belly fat other than the tried-and-true method of cutting calories and getting more physical activity. Monounsaturated fats and so-called "belly fat" diets won’t trim your belly faster than any healthy, low-calorie diet, Jensen says.
Because of the link between alcohol calories and belly fat, drinking less alcohol is a good place to start. Avoid binge drinking, which puts you at risk for liver damage and other serious health problems. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting alcohol to one serving per day for women and two for men.
Beer lovers should opt for light beers with 100 calorie or less, and limit the number they drink per day. Another option is to drink alcohol only on weekends, and to alternate alcoholic drinks with low-calorie, non-alcohol beverages.
Don’t forget to have a healthy meal before or with your drinks to help you resist the temptation of high-calorie bar food.
Can Exercise Eliminate Your Beer Belly?
Doing sit-ups, crunches, or other abdominal exercises will strengthen your core muscles and help you hold in your belly fat, but won’t eliminate it. The only way to lose belly fat (or any kind of fat) is to lose weight.
Aerobic exercises like running, swimming, cycling, and tennis are some of the best to help reduce body fat. But "any kind of exercise will help you keep the weight off more effectively than diet alone," Jensen says.
The good news is that when you start losing weight, you tend to lose it in the midsection first. "Visceral fat is more metabolically active and can be broken down quicker than other fat," Jensen says, "so it is usually the first to go, especially when you have a lot to lose."
Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.