Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on January 05, 2021
More Around the Middle

More Around the Middle

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Belly fat is a problem, and not just because of how it looks. The type of fat that collects in your belly is called visceral fat. It surrounds your organs and raises your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. To find out if you have excess fat in this area, put a tape measure around your midsection at bellybutton-level. More than 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men is too much. Here are a few reasons why belly fat forms and how to lose it.

You're Eating Too Much

You're Eating Too Much

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If you take in more calories than you burn off, you put on pounds everywhere -- including in your middle. You need to cut about 500 calories a day to lose a pound. That may sound like a lot, but look at cutting the highest-calorie foods from your diet first. Cookies, french fries, soda, and juice pack many calories into a few sips or bites. Replace those first with low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods like broccoli, apples, brown rice, and brothy soups.

You've Had a Few More Birthdays

You've Had a Few More Birthdays

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Age might bring wisdom, but it isn't kind to your midline. With each passing year, your muscle mass declines and your metabolism slows, so you don't burn as many calories as you used to. That means you can eat the same amount and still see the number on the scale creep up. Age-acquired weight tends to collect around the middle. To prevent unwanted gains, cut back on calories or add more muscle-building exercise.

Blame Your Genes

Blame Your Genes

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If you eat right and exercise and those stubborn pounds still won't go, your genes could be to blame. Another clue is if other family members struggle with their weight. Genes control how your body burns calories, how quickly you feel full, and whether you gain weight in your thighs, butt, or belly. Even if belly fat runs in your family, you can overcome your genes with the right diet and enough exercise.

You've Started ‘The Change’

You've Started ‘The Change’

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In women, the combination of aging and the loss of estrogen at menopause adds up to weight gain. Genes, loss of muscle mass, and overeating also contribute to weight creep in your 40s and 50s. The extra pounds that might have settled in your hips earlier in life now cluster in your middle, also thanks to hormone changes. That weight shift does more than make your pants tighter. It can also raise your risk for heart disease.

You Don't Move Enough

You Don't Move Enough

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Americans spend more than 10 hours a day in a seated position. Although diet plays a major part in weight gain, lack of movement contributes, too. To avoid putting on extra pounds in your belly and elsewhere in your body, get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic exercise each week.

Sleep Is Hard to Come By

Sleep Is Hard to Come By

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Too little shut-eye could be part of the reason you've gained weight. Your body makes hormones that make you feel full. Lack of slumber can make them less effective. That’s why, when you’re sleep-deprived, you may overeat and gain weight, especially in your belly. When you don’t get enough sleep, you may also crave more high-calorie comfort foods.

You're Stress Eating

You're Stress Eating

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Too much stress isn't good for your mental state or your weight. Stress triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that makes you crave high-fat, carb-heavy foods like pizza, fries, and cookies. Cortisol also deposits fat around your belly. Another way stress leads to weight gain is by keeping you up at night. People who sleep fewer hours tend to have more belly fat.

You Haven't Kicked the Habit

You Haven't Kicked the Habit

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Some people who smoke are afraid to quit because they worry that they’ll gain weight. But even though smokers have a lower body mass index than nonsmokers, their bellies are bigger. Smokers gain more visceral fat, the kind that's linked to heart disease and other chronic health conditions, than nonsmokers. So, in case you needed another reason to quit, now you’ve got one.

You Eat Too Many Trans Fats

You Eat Too Many Trans Fats

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These artificial fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol and boost your risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Foods cooked in trans fats are high in fat and calories and can cause weight gain. The FDA has banned added trans fats in foods, but some products made before the ban could still be on store shelves. Read food labels. If the ingredients list includes partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, that food contains trans fat. Try to choose a different item.

Your Gut Bacteria Aren't Helpful

Your Gut Bacteria Aren't Helpful

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Your intestines are home to trillions of bacteria. Some of these germs live in harmony with you and help your body digest food. Others break down food so much that your body absorbs more calories from it and stores more energy in the form of fat. There's evidence that probiotics, found in fermented foods like kimchi and yogurt, might get rid of belly fat. These friendly bacteria won't replace calorie cutting, but they might help.

It's Your Medicine

It's Your Medicine

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The answer to your weight gain could be hidden inside your medicine cabinet. Certain drugs are notorious for causing weight gain. These include some diabetes drugs, some antidepressants, steroids, and epilepsy medicines. A few medications add fat directly to the belly area, including beta-blockers, which treat high blood pressure.

Show Sources

 

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SOURCES: 

American Heart Association: "Trans Fats."

CDC: "Cutting Calories," "Eat More, Weigh Less?" "Physical Activity for a Healthy Weight."

Endotext: "Drugs That Affect Body Weight, Body Fat Distribution, and Metabolism."

Harvard Medical School: "Abdominal fat and what to do about it," "Do gut bacteria inhibit weight loss?" "Taking aim at belly fat," "Why people become overweight," "Winning the weight battle after menopause."

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Waist Size Matters."

International Journal of Endocrinology: "The Impact of Sleep and Circadian Disturbance on Hormones and Metabolism."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "The Skinny on Visceral Fat."

Mayo Clinic: "Belly fat in men: Why weight loss matters," "Menopause weight gain: Stop the middle age spread," "Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health."

Get America Standing: "On Your Feet America."

Journal of Obesity: "Mindfulness Intervention for Stress Eating to Reduce Cortisol and Abdominal Fat among Overweight and Obese Women: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Study."

Nature Communications: "The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain."

Nutrients: "Fat Intake and Stress Modify Sleep Duration Effects on Abdominal Obesity."

PLOS One: "Cigarette Smoking Increases Abdominal and Visceral Obesity but Not Overall Fatness: An Observational Study."

Scientific Reports: "Dissecting the role of the gut microbiota and diet on visceral fat mass accumulation."

SleepFoundation.org: "Sleep Linked to Gains in Abdominal Fat."

Sleep Medicine: "Sleep duration and obesity among adults: a meta-analysis of prospective studies."

Tufts Medical Center: "Can you avoid gaining weight as you age?"

University of Rochester Medical Center: "When Your Weight Gain Is Caused by Medicine."