What causes belly fat in women? Doctors break it down

Belly fat is a problem for many of us. Despite our best efforts and the hours spent in the gym, losing weight in our abdomen can be a challenge.

For many women, weight gain occurs with age. The metabolism slows down, and since your body isn’t burning as many calories, the pounds may start to pile on gradually. In addition to age, there are a variety of factors that play a role. Here’s everything you need to know about building belly fat and how to lose it.

The science behind belly fat

Belly fat refers to “visceral fat” or “omental fat” – the fat pad that surrounds your abdominal internal organs. Too much is thought to be linked to heart disease and metabolic syndrome, which includes diabetes and obesity. Fat cells secrete chemicals that alter our metabolism.

Compared to fat in your thighs, for example, visceral fat cells are more active as they are a direct food source for internal organs, Dr. Mike Hoaglin, MD, Medical director of DrHouse, explains. They secrete more inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that make it harder to lose weight and lower blood sugar, especially when there’s too much of it.

Because the belly is so close to the liver, it constantly sends fat to the liver and then into the bloodstream, which in turn can raise cholesterol and general markers of body inflammation. High visceral fat also blocks beneficial hormones like adiponectin that normally help increase fat burning and lower blood sugar.

What causes belly fat in women?

Stress can also contribute to the breakdown of belly fat, adds Dr. Hoaglin. With stress comes flight or flight hormones like cortisol. Cortisol forces our body to retain fat and sugar even more and belly fat is the most active. Genetics also play a role, especially in women, as women tend to store fat viscerally.

Related: Belly Fat Can Be Stubborn, But Losing It Isn’t Impossible — Here Are 30 Different Ways To Get There

“The main causes of abdominal obesity are a poor diet, mainly too much sugar, alcohol and trans fats, and not enough protein”, explains Dr. Mir Ali, MD bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “The lack of activity also plays a central role. Other contributing factors include lack of sleep and genetics.

How do you know if you have too much belly fat?

A good screening tool to see if you might have excess belly fat is waist circumference. It’s even better than BMI for this purpose.

Place the tape measure at belly button level, around your torso, and above your hip bones as you stand up. Make sure the tape is level with the ground. Exhale, pull the band snug, but without pressing the skin. In general, cardiovascular and metabolic risks increase with a waist circumference greater than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men, says Dr. Hoaglin.

How to get rid of excess belly fat

Although we wish we could target where we lose weight, that’s not how weight loss works.

“Unfortunately, you can’t target weight loss to certain areas like your abdomen,” says Dr. Ali. “However, overall weight loss will lead to a reduction in trunk obesity.”

1. Limit Refined Carbs

Refined carbs like sugar and white flour spike your insulin levels, which can contribute to more inflammation in omental fat and to retaining and adding to that fat more strongly.

Talk to your doctor about a weight loss plan, recommends Dr. Hoaglin. Your doctor might suggest focusing on foods that have 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 drastically reduce carbohydrates.

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 great place to start, says Dr. Ali. Minimizing or eliminating alcohol consumption is also critically important.

3. Get enough sleep and exercise regularly

Improving your sleep habits and exercising regularly can lead to a positive reduction in abdominal fat, Dr. Ali says.

4. Reduce stress

Stress is another big factor. Chronic stress causes our bodies to marinate in cortisol, the stress hormone, and leads to insulin resistance and preferential distribution of fat around the abdomen, Dr. Lydia Alexander, MDchief medical officer at Enara and vice president, Obesity Medicine Association, explains.

Mindfulness practice, including meditation practices, can be beneficial for reducing abdominal fat.

Next up: Tired 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 MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California

  • Dr. Lydia Alexander, Chief Medical Officer at Enara and Vice President, Obesity Medicine Association

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