what causes belly fat

Belly fat is considered to be one of the most dangerous kinds of fat. It can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, asthma, and cancer. There are many reasons for gaining weight in the abdominal area, including poor diet, lack of exercise, and stress. In this article, we will learn what makes belly fat dangerous and identify different causes for belly fat.

What is belly fat?

Belly fat is the fat around the abdominal area. There are two types of belly fats –

Subcutaneous fat

This fat accumulates just under the skin.

Visceral fat

This fat is located beneath the muscles of the stomach and surrounds a person’s organs like heart, liver, and lungs.

Why is belly fat dangerous?

We all need some visceral fat as it provides cushioning to the organs it surrounds, but too much of it can be harmful.  Visceral fat is more dangerous than subcutaneous fat, even for thin people.  It can harm almost every organ in the body due to the production of excess hormones and chemicals. Too much of visceral fat can increase your chances of getting high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and certain cancers like breast cancer and colon cancer.

Do you have too much belly fat?

A CT scan or MRI can determine precisely how much belly fat you have. You can also measure yourself at home to figure out if you have dangerous levels of belly fat. Take a measuring tape and wrap it around your belly button to measure your girth. The tape should be snug but not too tight. Make sure you stand while measuring, and the tape measure is level.

For women, a measurement of 35 or more indicates you have unhealthy levels of belly fat. For a man, a measurement of 40 or more points to an unhealthy level of belly fat. A pear-shaped body (bigger hips and thighs) is safer than an apple-shaped body (wider waistline).

What causes you to gain belly fat?

Unhealthy diet and lifestyle can lead to belly fat. Here are some of the common causes of high belly fat –

1. Sugary food

The type of food that you eat can have a significant impact on the accumulation of belly fat. Sugar, particularly fructose, has been linked to abdominal obesity (1). Most people take much more sugar in their daily diet than they realize. While soft drinks, cakes, and candies contain sugar, so do muffins, yogurts, and processed foods. The excessive amount of sugar consumed is stored as fat.

During a study at UCD, Davis, California, overweight and obese subject consumed glucose or fructose-sweetened beverages providing 25 % of energy requirements for ten weeks. The results showed that dietary fructose increases DNL, Promotes dyslipidemia, decreases insulin sensitivity, and increases visceral adiposity in overweight and obese adults (2).

Fructose also slows down metabolism and fat burning. According to a study from the University of California, increase consumption of fructose for ten weeks leads to a decrease in metabolic rate and fat burning (3). We tend to consume excessive amounts of sweetened beverages like sodas and juices, as they do not have the same effect on hunger as solid food, which leads to more calorie intake.

2. Trans fats

Consuming trans fats can make you fatter than other foods that contain the same amount of calories. According to the researchers at Wake Forest University, trans fats increase the amount of fat around the belly by adding new fat and moving fat from other areas to the abdomen.

During this study, monkeys were given a diet containing either 8% of trans fats or 8% of monounsaturated fats for a period for six years. They were provided just enough calories to maintain their weight. The results showed that the monkeys that were given the trans fat diet gained significant weight and had increased intra-abdominal fat deposition(4).

Research shows that trans fats can cause inflammation, which can lead to obesity (5). Vegetable shortening, some kinds of margarine, manufactured baked goods like cookies, crackers, and snacks contain trans fats. Fried fast foods also contain trans fats. You must read the labels of the food you buy to ensure they do not contain any trans fats.

3. Too much alcohol

Drinking excessive alcohol can lead to a variety of health problems like liver diseases, inflammation, and weight gain. Alcoholic drinks are empty calories, which mean they provide very little nutrition. When we consume alcohol, our body burns it first as a source of fuel. The glucose from carbohydrates and lipids from fats are stored as fat.

According to a study by Yonsei University, Korea, high alcohol intake is associated with high waist circumference in both men and women (6).  Another study from Spain showed that people who consume more than three drinks a day had 80% higher chances of having abdominal fat as compared to those who consumed less alcohol (7).

Drinking patterns can also influence abdominal fat. According to a study by the University of Buffalo, daily drinkers have less abdominal fat as compared to weekly drinkers who consumed more than four drinks of drinking days (8).

4. Low protein diet

People who eat less protein have higher abdominal fat as compared to those who consume high protein diets (9). Studies have shown that higher protein intake increases thermogenesis and satiety as compared to diets of low protein content. The studies also show that high protein meals reduce subsequent consumption of food (10).

Studies have also shown that neuropeptide Y can increase abdominal fat (11). The levels of this hormone increase when the dietary intake of proteins is low (12).

5. Refined carbohydrates

Refined carbs such as bread, rice, bagels, pasta, cookies, candies, and chips can cause you to gain fat, especially in the abdominal area. According to a 2015 study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, low-carbohydrate diets can increase insulin sensitivity and reduce abdominal and intermuscular fat in adults at risk of type 2 diabetes (14).

You don’t have to reduce all carbs from your diet. You can lose weight by replacing refined carbs with unprocessed carbs to improve metabolic health and reduce abdominal fat (13). According to the Framingham heart study, people with the highest consumption of whole grains are 17 % less likely to have excess belly fat as compared to those who consumed a diet high in refined grains (16).

6. Low fiber food

Studies have shown that low fiber diets can lead to weight gain, high blood sugar, and insulin resistance. According to a study from Cell Host and Microbe, diets that lack fiber alter the bacterial composition and bacterial metabolism, which I turn can cause defects to the inner mucus layer and trigger inflammation and metabolic disease.

Soluble fiber also helps in appetite control. It reduces the levels of the ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and increases the production of hormones that improve satiety such as cholecystokinin, GLP-1, and peptide YY (17). Flaxseeds, sweet potatoes, apricots, oranges, Brussels sprouts, legumes, and oatmeal are some high fiber foods.

7. An unhealthy balance of gut bacteria

The human gut has two types of bacteria – the Bacteroidetes and the Firmicutes. Obese people have a higher number of Firmicutes and a lower number of Bacteroidetes in comparison to lean people. According to a 2006 study from Washington University, colonization of germ-free mice with obese microbiota results in a more significant increase in total body fat than colonization with lean microbiota (18).

Another study from Washington University School of medicine that analyzed 15 individuals showed that there is a common core of shared bacterial flora among families that influence weight gain and how the weight is stored in the body (19).

8. Smoking

Latest research has found that heavy smokers are more likely to get belly fat. According to a study published in the BMJ Open Journal, some smokers have a genetic variation linked to smoking more and having lower BMI. Though overall BMI in heavy smokers was lower, their waist circumference was higher than non-smokers once BMI was accounted for (20).

These results show that smokers will develop bigger tummies as compared to non-smokers for the same amount of weight gain.

9. Lack of exercise

An inactive or sedentary lifestyle leads to weight gain and can make it very difficult for a person to lose belly fat. Over the years, people have generally become inactive, and this has led to an increase in obesity. When experts analyzed the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey data from 1988 to 2010, they found that there was a major increase in inactivity, obesity, and abdominal circumference (21).

A study from Australia found that women who watched television for more than three hours per day have a higher prevalence for severe abdominal obesity as compared to women who watched less than one hour of TV per day (22).

10. Stress

Stress can also lead to weight gain. When you are stressed, your levels of the stress hormone cortisol rises. Cortisol can cause a drop in sugar levels, which makes you crave sugary and fatty foods. These foods are called comfort foods because our body releases chemicals in response to a food that might have a direct calming effect. These excess calories are then stored around the belly due to cortisol (23).

11. Poor sleep

According to a study published in the journal Sleep, poor sleep can lead to an increase in abdominal fat in people who are younger than 40 years. The researchers discovered that people who slept less than five hours gained more abdominal fat than those people who snoozed for at least six hours.

According to researchers, sleep is an essential modulator for neuroendocrine function and glucose metabolism. Sleep loss leads to decreased glucose tolerance, reduced insulin sensitivity, increased concentrations of cortisol, increased levels of ghrelin, decreased levels of leptin, and increased appetite (24).

13. Genetics

A person’s genes also play a part in obesity and where the fat is stored (25, 26). In 2014 researchers identified three genes that are linked to waist circumference and waist to hip ratio (27).

14. Menopause

Women tend to gain excess belly fat during menopause. This weight gain happens because as the estrogen levels drop, the fat is redistributed from the hips, thighs, and the buttocks to the abdomen (28). Some women tend to gain more abdominal fat at this stage as compared to other women. This weight gain may be due to genetics or the age at which the menopause starts. According to a study from Hungary, women who go through menopause at a younger age tend to gain less belly fat (29).

Final thought

Belly fat is considered dangerous for health. Too much of this fat can increase your chances of getting high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and certain cancers like breast cancer and colon cancer.

A poor diet that is low in dietary fiber and proteins and high in sugary food and trans fats can lead to belly fat. Lack of exercise, excessive drinking, smoking, and stress are also responsible for the accumulation of belly fat. While we can’t control some factors like genetics and hormonal changes during menopause, we can make a particular lifestyle and dietary changes to lower belly fat.