7 Reasons Belly Fat Is So Hard to Lose

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Jennifer L.W. Fink, RN, BSN on May 9, 2021
  • Close-up of unseen woman holding belly fat under T-shirt
    Get the Skinny on Visceral Fat
    “Visceral fat” is the medical name for belly fat. Most of the fat in our bodies is stored just under the skin, as what’s called subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat is stored deep in the belly, behind the abdominal wall, in the spaces between our internal organs. Belly fat is easy to gain, hard to lose, and harmful to human health. A waist size over 35 inches (for women) and 40 inches (for men) increases your risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma and even Alzheimer’s disease. Here are 7 reasons belly fat is so hard to lose—and tips for overcoming them.
  • Unseen overweight woman wearing bikini
    1. Belly fat is “active fat.”
    In the mid-1990s, scientists learned visceral fat secretes hormones and other substances that affect the body’s functioning. These substances cause inflammation, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and other chronic diseases. Visceral fat also secretes a protein that makes it harder for the body to use insulin effectively, which increases the risk of diabetes. And because visceral fat is so close to the liver, it may cause the liver to produce too much cholesterol, which raises the risk of developing high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
  • Unseen Caucasian couple eating dessert and drinking wine at restaurant
    2. We like sweets and alcohol.
    When we take in more calories than we burn, we gain both subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. Sugary drinks, sweet treats and alcohol are common in the American diet. They’re also high in calories and low in nutrition. Unfortunately, our fondness for these foods, and their prevalence in social settings, makes it difficult to cut back. It’s next to impossible to lose significant amounts of belly fat, though, while regularly indulging. Better to restrict sweet snacks and sugary drinks to small amounts or special occasions, and drink alcohol in moderation.
  • Middle age Caucasian woman raking outdoors smiling with cup of coffee
    3. Low estrogen levels lead to increased belly fat.
    Almost all women gain inches around their waist after menopause. Low estrogen levels appear to trigger a shift in fat accumulation, from the hips and thighs to the belly. Even women who don’t gain weight after menopause often see their waists grow. Hormone replacement therapy can temporarily halt or prevent menopause-related visceral fat gain. However, hormone therapy increases the risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease and dementia, so hormone therapy is not recommended solely to treat belly fat. Your doctor can help you understand the risks and benefits of hormone replacement.
  • Woman with exercise ball
    4. Diet alone won’t do it.
    As important as a healthy diet is for weight loss, simply switching up your eating habits probably won’t lead to a significant decrease in belly fat. To effectively lose visceral weight, you need exercise. Studies have found walking 50 minutes a day three times a week or 30 minutes a day six days a week can prevent (or help you lose) belly fat. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, exercise helps your liver use nearby fat for energy, and encourages the body to use calories for energy rather than storing them as fat.
  • African American mother with head in hands looking stressed with daughter in background
    5. Stress is everywhere.
    When our bodies are under stress, they release a hormone called cortisol. This hormone causes fat cells to mature more quickly and encourages the body to store fat around the internal organs. One study from Yale University found that women who are susceptible to stress have higher cortisol levels and more belly fat than other women. De-stressing can decrease your cortisol levels and help prevent the accumulation of visceral fat. Meditation, prayer, walks in nature, and time with friends can keep stress levels in check.
  • Mother and daughter looking a computer
    6. Genetics keeps some factors out of our control.
    Some people are genetically prone to hold weight in their abdominal areas. If your mother was “apple-shaped,” with most of her weight around the belly, odds are good you will be too. Interesting new research suggests a propensity for visceral fat may be passed down via the microbiota (a collection of microorganisms) that inhabit your body. A study published in Genome Biology found that adult twins shared similar fecal microbiota, and these similarities were positively associated with belly fat.
  • Young African American mother and daughter in juice aisle at grocery store
    7. Added sugars are hard to avoid.
    Almost all prepackaged foods—including foods you might not expect, like ketchup—contain added sugars, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup. Fructose is metabolized in the liver, and there’s evidence to suggest overconsumption of fructose may cause the body to store fat in the liver and abdominal cavity. Too much fructose may also cause insulin resistance, but scientists are still working to understand this link. You can decrease your consumption of added sugars by cutting back on sugary beverages, the number one source of added sugar in the American diet.
7 Reasons Belly Fat Is So Hard to Lose | What Causes Belly Fat?
  1. Belly Fat in Men. U.S. Pharmacist. https://www.uspharmacist.com/article/belly-fat-in-men
  2. Papadakis, G., Hans, D., Rodriguez, E., Vollenweider, P., Waeber, G., Marques-Vidal, P., & Lamy, O. (2018). Menopausal Hormone Therapy Is Associated With Reduced Total and Visceral Adiposity: The OsteoLaus Cohort. The Journal Of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 103(5), 1948-1957. doi:10.1210/jc.2017-02449. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/103/5/1948/4953992
  3. 8 Ways to Lose Belly Fat and Live a Healthier Life. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/8-ways-to-lose-belly-fat-and-live-a-healthier-life
  4. Study: Stress may cause excess abdominal fat in otherwise slender women. Yale University. https://news.yale.edu/2000/09/22/study-stress-may-cause-excess-abdominal-fat-otherwise-slender-women
  5. Le Roy, C., Beaumont, M., Jackson, M., Steves, C., Spector, T., & Bell, J. (2017). Heritable components of the human fecal microbiome are associated with visceral fat. Gut Microbes, 9(1), 61-67. doi:10.1080/19490976.2017.1356556. Retrieved from https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/s13059-016-1052-7
  6. Dornas, W., de Lima, W., Pedrosa, M., & Silva, M. (2015). Health Implications of High-Fructose Intake and Current Research. Advances In Nutrition, 6(6), 729-737. doi:10.3945/an.114.008144. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/6/6/729/4555139
  7. DiNicolantonio JJ, e. (2019). Fructose-induced inflammation and increased cortisol: A new mechanism for how sugar induces visceral adiposity. Prog Cardiovasc Dis , 1-7. Retrieved from https://betabios.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Fructose-Visceral-Fat-Inflammation.pdf
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Last Review Date: 2021 May 9
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