What Causes Belly Fat In Women? Doctors Break It Down

Belly fat is a problem area for many of us. Despite our best efforts and hours at the gym, losing weight in our core can be a challenge.
Many women gain weight as they get older. Metabolism slows, and since your body isn't burning as many calories, the pounds can slowly pile on. In addition to age, various factors play a role. Here's everything you need to know about how belly fat develops and how to lose it.
The science behind belly fat
Belly fat refers to “visceral fat” or “omental fat” — the pad of fat that surrounds your internal abdominal organs. Excessive amounts are thought to be linked to heart disease and the metabolic syndrome, which includes diabetes and obesity. Fat cells secrete chemicals that alter our metabolism.
For example, compared to the fat on your thighs, visceral fat cells are more active because they provide a direct source of nourishment for your internal organs, explains Dr. Mike Hoaglin, MD, Medical Director of DrHouse. You secrete more inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that make it harder to lose weight and lower blood sugar, especially when there is too much.
Because the abdomen is so close to the liver, it constantly sends fat to the liver and then into the bloodstream, which in turn can increase cholesterol and general markers of body inflammation. A high amount of visceral fat also blocks beneficial hormones like adiponectin, which normally help increase fat burning and lower blood sugar.
What Causes Belly Fat in Women?
Stress can also contribute to belly fat distribution, adds Dr. Hoaglin added. With stress comes the escape or escape hormones like cortisol. Cortisol causes our bodies to hold on to fat and sugar even tighter, and belly fat has dibs first, which are the most active. Genetics also play a role, especially in women, as women tend to store fat in their abdomens.
Related: Belly fat can be stubborn, but losing it isn't impossible — here are 30 different ways to get rid of it
"The main causes of abdominal obesity are poor diets - primarily too much sugar, alcohol and trans fats, and too little protein," says Dr. Mir Ali, MD, bariatric surgeon and medical director of the MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. “Lack of activity also plays a crucial role. Other contributing factors are lack of sleep and genetics.”
How do you know if you have too much belly fat?
A good screening tool to determine if you may have excess belly fat is waist measurement. It is even better than BMI for this purpose.
While standing, place the tape measure around your torso and above your hip bones at belly button height. Make sure the tape is level with the floor. Exhale, pull the band tight but do not press into the skin. In general, cardiovascular and metabolic risks increase with a waist size larger than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men, says Dr. Hoaglin.
How to get rid of excess belly fat
As much as we wish we could target weight loss, weight loss doesn't work that way.
"Unfortunately, you can't target weight loss to specific areas like your stomach," says Dr. Ali. "However, overall weight loss will result in a reduction in trunk obesity."
1. Limit refined carbohydrates
Refined carbs like sugar and white flour cause your insulin levels to spike, which can lead to more inflammation in the omental fat and more fat holding and adding.
Talk to your doctor about a weight-loss plan, recommends Dr. Hoaglin. Your doctor might suggest emphasizing foods with a lower glycemic index. He or she may even tell you to start a ketogenic diet, where you focus on healthy fats and proteins and cut back on carbs significantly.
Related: What Is a Weight Loss Journal and Should You Try One? Here's why it might help
2. Eat foods high in fiber and low in sugar
Changing your eating habits and lifestyle is the most effective way to lose belly fat.
A diet high in fiber and protein and low in sugar is a good place to start, says Dr. Ali. Minimizing or eliminating alcohol consumption is also crucial.
3. Get enough sleep and exercise regularly
Improving your sleep habits and getting regular exercise can lead to a positive reduction in belly fat, says Dr. Ali.
4. Reduce stress
Stress is another important factor. Chronic stress marinates our body in the stress hormone cortisol, leading to insulin resistance and preferential fat distribution around the abdomen, explains Dr. Lydia Alexander, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Enara and Vice President of the Obesity Medicine Association.
Practicing mindfulness, including meditation practices, can be beneficial in reducing belly fat.
Next up: Sick of that stubborn bulge around your midsection? Stock up on these 40 foods that burn belly fat
dr Mike Hoaglin, Medical Director of DrHouse
Mir Ali, MD, bariatric surgeon and medical director of the MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA
dr Lydia Alexander, chief medical officer at Enara and vice president of the Obesity Medicine Association

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