What Causes Belly Fat? What Are the Different Types?

Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Reviewed by Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Written by Vanessa Gibbs

Published 05/21/2024

Belly fat — both the visible kind and the deep kind that sits around your organs — is caused by a combination of factors. This includes factors within your control, like your diet and physical activity level, and factors outside your control, like genetics and age.     

Before we dive into what causes belly fat, it’s helpful to know the different types. 

There are two types of belly fat

  • Subcutaneous fat. This is the fat that sits just under the skin and is more noticeable.

  • Visceral fat. This is the fat that sits around the organs inside your abdomen. It’s linked to more serious health issues.

Both types of fat can contribute to any bulk you notice around your midsection. 

Keep reading to learn more about what causes belly fat, the health risks of too much belly fat, and how you can reduce it.

Being in a calorie surplus — consuming more calories than you burn — can lead to overall weight gain and increase your chances of developing belly fat.  

In general, foods high in calories (and sugar) contribute to weight gain. Which means they contribute to belly fat too.

So, foods that cause belly fat can include: 

  • Baked goods

  • Fast food 

  • Candy 

  • Sugary breakfast cereals 

  • Soda 

Eating foods like these in moderation every now and again isn’t going to doom your waistline, but regularly reaching for these foods over other nutritious options might.

There isn’t a lot of research into whether specific foods cause contribute to belly fat. 

However, one older study found that a diet high in sugar-sweetened beverages (like soda) may be linked to the accumulation of visceral fat in the abdomen. 

Participants who drank sugary beverages daily had a 10 percent higher absolute volume of visceral fat compared to those who didn’t.

A lack of physical activity — both exercise and general movement — can contribute to weight gain. When you’re not moving enough, it’s really easy to eat more calories than you burn. 

A lack of movement is linked to both stomach fat types: visceral and subcutaneous fat.

One study of more than 3,000 people looked at the connection between physical activity, sedentary behavior, and fat accumulation. 

The results showed that sedentary behaviors, especially watching TV, were linked to more visceral fat, subcutaneous fat, and intermuscular fat, which is the fat found between your muscles. 

On the flip side, physical activity was linked to less visceral fat, subcutaneous fat, and intermuscular fat. 

There is a link between sleep loss and weight gain

Research shows that people who routinely don’t get enough sleep tend to eat higher-calorie and higher-fat diets.  

Not getting enough shut-eye can mess with the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin. This can increase your appetite and contribute to your overall calorie intake.

A 2022 study with only 12 participants compared getting four hours of sleep to getting nine hours of sleep. 

When participants only got four hours of sleep, they consumed more calories and fat, gained more weight, and gained more abdominal fat — both subcutaneous fat and visceral fat — compared to when they got nine hours. 

Stress can lead to overeating, eating high-calorie or high-fat foods, and sleep loss. 

When you’re stressed, the stress hormone cortisol reduces your brain’s sensitivity to leptin — the hormone responsible for satiety — so you may overeat. 

Cortisol also promotes fat deposition, especially in the abdominal area. 

Plus, after a stressful day at work, it’s much more tempting to slump on the sofa and turn on the T.V. than hit the gym. 

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to weight gain, especially around the midsection.

A 2017 study with more than 11,000 participants shows that people who drink more during each drinking occasion are more likely to have abdominal obesity than those who have fewer than two drinks. 

What’s going on here? Well, alcohol suppresses lipid oxidation, or the breakdown of fats for fuel, leading to more fat being deposited in the abdominal area. 

Beyond this, when you drink too much alcohol, you may be consuming too many calories, eating high-calorie foods alongside your drinks, and not sleeping as well — all of which can promote weight gain. 

Check out our guide to alcohol and weight loss to learn more.

You may have heard that menopause contributes to lower belly fat in women. Unfortunately, it’s true. Hormonal changes during the menopausal transition can actually impact fat distribution, causing more fat to build up around the belly. 

Menopause is also associated with an increase in both total body fat and visceral fat. 

Weight gain may happen during perimenopause because your metabolism slows and you stop burning calories at the same rate you used to. Menopause also affects your ability to burn fat as well as it used to. (A 32 percent decrease in fat oxidation). 

That’s right, your genes may play a role in your overall weight and the accumulation of belly fat. 

Research has looked into how genes could influence factors like the drive to overeat, the tendency to be sedentary, and the body’s capacity to use fats as fuel. 

Genetics may also play a role in where your body stores fat, whether that’s in the belly area or elsewhere. 

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Excess belly fat has many health risks. 

Having too much visceral fat can increase your risk of: 

  • Metabolic syndrome 

  • Heart disease

  • Prostate, breast, and colorectal cancers 

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Insulin resistance 

  • High cholesterol 

  • All-cause mortality (death from any cause)

What’s more, higher visceral fat is associated with health risks like hardened arteries, regardless of body mass index (BMI).  

Obesity, in general, can increase your risk of: 

  • High blood pressure 

  • High cholesterol 

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Breathing problems 

  • Joint problems and back pain 

  • Stroke 

  • Depression 

  • Anxiety 

  • Fatty liver disease 

  • Many types of cancer 

  • Cardiovascular disease 

Unfortunately, you can’t target where in your body you lose weight. So, the best way to reduce belly fat is to lose any excess weight. 

These tips will help you lose weight and fat around the belly. 

Eat nutritious foods

Opt for fruits, vegetables, lean proteins like chicken and tofu, and whole grains like brown rice and oatmeal. And don’t forget healthy snacks like edamame and dried fruit — yes, you can still snack and lose weight!

Incorporate more movement into your day

Research shows that resistance training can be effective at reducing overall body fat mass and visceral fat, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can reduce abdominal and visceral fat. 

Overall, aim for at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise. Beyond this, aim for at least two strength training sessions a week. 

If you’re just getting back into shape, take things slow. Try taking a walk on your lunch break or standing more during the day.

Get at least seven hours of sleep

The CDC recommends adults get at least seven hours of sleep a night. To hit this number, aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, remove electronic devices from your bedroom, and make sure your room is cool, dark, quiet, and relaxing. 

Water can suppress your appetite, promote fat burn, and reduce your overall calorie intake. Drink when you feel thirsty and check that your pee is clear or light yellow to see if you’re hydrated. Check out our guide to drinking water for weight loss.

Reduce Stress

This one is much easier said than done, of course. Try practicing stress management techniques like meditation or muscle relaxation exercises. Getting enough sleep, doing regular exercise, and practicing hobbies can help too. 

Reach out to friends, family, or a healthcare provider if you need support, and consider making changes like hiring more childcare or cutting back on work responsibilities if you can. 

Cut down on alcohol 

Experts recommend women stick to one drink or less a day. For men, it’s two drinks or less. Try swapping alcoholic drinks for non-alcoholic versions or sparkling water.

Consider weight loss medications 

Weight loss medications, like Ozempic (semaglutide) and metformin, can suppress your appetite and promote weight loss. If you’re interested in learning more about weight loss drugs, consider connecting with one of the licensed healthcare professionals at Hers. 

Learn more about Ozempic vs. Metformin.

Excess belly fat can put you at a higher risk for many health problems, so losing some weight can be a great step toward a healthier you.

Here are the key takeaways about belly fat: 

  • What causes belly fat in females and males is mostly the same: diet, inactivity, sleep loss, stress, alcohol consumption, and genetics. Menopause can cause belly fat in females too. 

  • You can’t pick and choose where you’ll lose weight, but making some healthy lifestyle changes and practicing general weight management can help you lose weight overall, including weight around the belly. 

  • Focus on eating nutritious foods, getting more steps, working more movement into your day, drinking more water, and getting sufficient sleep. Weight loss drugs can help in some cases. 

Weight loss medication isn’t a quick fix for belly fat. Instead, it can be a useful tool to help with weight loss alongside other changes in your daily life.

If it’s something you’re considering, you can learn more about weight loss treatments from Hers.

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