What is belly fat?

Belly fat produces a potbelly, known as central obesity, and is a condition in which there is an excessive deposit of abdominal fat around the stomach and other organs causing the abdomen to become big.

Besides an undesirable cosmetic appearance, it has a negative impact on the health of the person and is strongly associated with cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and vascular diseases. It does this mainly through the production of excess hormones and chemicals.

Belly fat is caused by excessive buildup of visceral fat, which causes the abdomen to protrude out excessively.

Visceral fat, also called organ fat, is located beneath the abdominal muscles, inside the peritoneal cavity between the organs and the trunk. It surrounds various internal organs in the abdomen such as the stomach, intestines, and liver.

As against the belly fat, there is the subcutaneous fat, which accounts for 90% of the total body fat. This fat sits under the skin and is found more around the thighs and the hips. This type of fat deposit does not spell danger to health as belly fat does.

There are various reasons why you as a male or female can develop a big belly. Those causes are outlined below.

However, you can also develop a hormonal belly, which develops due to hormonal causes only.

How do you know you have excess belly fat?

There is a simple way to know if you are carrying excess belly fat. Measure your abdominal girth with a measuring tape just above the hipbone after you have exhaled.

In men, a measurement of 40 inches or more while in women, a measurement of 35 inches or more indicates an unhealthy and unnecessary amount of belly fat.

Why is belly fat dangerous? Health complications

Regardless of your body weight, excess belly fat increases your risk of developing certain health issues. Even people with normal weight but with excessive belly fat are at health risks. These include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. The visceral fat secretes retinol-binding protein 4 (RBP4). It is a protein that increases insulin resistance.
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Breathing insufficiency
  • Dementia
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Sleep apnea
  • Premature death from any cause

Causes of belly fat

There are several reasons that can cause excess fat deposits around your abdomen.

A Genetic trait

If it is in your genes to have a potbelly, you will have one and will need that extra effort to lose it. You may inherit the genes either from one parent or from both.

Research suggests that genes account for just 25% of the predisposition to have a potbelly, while in others, the genetic influence is as high as 70% to 80%.

Improper diet

Sugary food such as cakes, candy, and other bakery products, drinks, such as soda and fruit juice can slow down metabolism and reduce a person’s ability to burn fat. Avoid fried foods, junk food, and foods that contain saturated fats. These are the fats that increase the fat deposits in the body.

Even if you exercise six days a week, your belly fat will not burn enough if you are consuming too much sugar, refined carbohydrates, and salt.

You should know what foods to eat and what to avoid.

Lack of exercise

A sedentary lifestyle or one with no physical exercise will increase belly fat because you do not burn enough calories. Excess calories deposit around the abdomen and give you a potbelly.

To cut down on your belly fat, you need to exercise enough to burn more calories than your calorie intake through food.

To reduce belly fat, there is an exercise plan that will help you lose excess weight and specific exercises to lose belly fat.

Late night dinners

Eating about 2 to 3 hours before bedtime helps in the metabolism of food. Research has found that late-night dinners consumed more calories, which tend to deposit around our midriff.

Mental stress

Mental stress stimulates the release of cortisol hormone. Cortisol in turn stimulates the liver to produce more glucose. You feel more hungry and eat more. This extra glucose, if not metabolized gets deposited as fat.

Advancing age

Advancing age does reduce metabolism. This causes fewer calories to be burnt. Unmetabolized calories are converted into fat, which is deposited around the organs in the abdomen leading to increased abdominal girth.

Improper digestion causes belly fat

Improper digestion is due to stress and anxiety, alcoholism, smoking, improper food habits, certain medicines, and an unhealthy lifestyle. All these factors are independently responsible for giving you unhealthy belly fat.

Improper digestion means poor absorption of nutrients and their improper utilization. All this can slow down your metabolism and build up calories. Extra calories lead to extra weight around your belly.

Alcoholism and belly fat

Drinking excess alcohol hampers the metabolism and, therefore, fat is not properly metabolized. This unmetabolized fat gets stored in the body especially around the midriff.

Cushing’ syndrome and belly fat

Cushing’s syndrome results in higher cortisol levels, which causes extra fat deposits in the body. In Cushing’s syndrome, the distribution of the adipose tissue (body fat) over the body changes.

Fat will accumulate especially around the organs (visceral adipose tissue) and under the skin of the abdomen, while the subcutaneous fat will diminish.

Certain medications cause belly fat

If you are on certain medicines for a prolonged period, you can develop a big belly. Such medicines include those given for certain conditions.

Certain medicines used for :

Foods that cause belly fat

  • Refined carbohydrates such as those found in white sugar, white rice, refined flour, French fries among others, are a major cause of obesity including belly fat. Their nutritional value and fiber content are low and they contain fructose. Now, what does this mean? It means that when too much fructose enters the liver, the liver gets overloaded and cannot process the fructose into glucose, which the body ca utilize. As a result, this excess fructose is converted into fat which gets deposited in the body including your midriff.  Secondly, fructose interferes with the appetite-regulating hormone and you feel more hungry, causing you to eat more.
  • Soda contains empty calories, meaning that these calories do not have any nutritional value and are converted into fats. Secondly, soda contains fructose, which significantly adds to belly fat.
  • Canned foods contain high quantities of salts, which cause water retention in your body. This excess water retention causes the belly to look bigger.

What is a hormonal belly and what causes it?

Sometimes, an excess fat deposit around the belly is due to hormonal reasons. These hormones control metabolism, stress, hunger, and sex drive. If a person suffers from a deficiency of these hormones, it may result in weight gain around the abdomen. This type of belly fat is known as hormonal belly fat.

Thyroid hormones

The thyroid hormones released by the thyroid gland regulate metabolism for which the body uses energy. In hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland does not function properly. As a result, many body functions including metabolism slow down.

Weight gain, among others, is a common sign of an underactive thyroid, which seen commonly around the midriff.

According to the American Thyroid Association, most of this extra weight gained is due to excess accumulation of salt and water.


Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands and helps the body and mind fight stress. When you are overly stressed or anxious, the adrenal gland secretes more cortisol, which triggers the body to store more fat, especially around the abdomen, chest, and face.


The fat cells release a hormone called leptin, which acts on the brain and gives you a sense of feeling full.

When the body has stored enough fat, the leptin levels rise and signal the brain and you stop eating after feeling full.

People, who are overweight, tend to have high levels of leptin in the brain, which should give a feeling of fullness to the overweight individual.

However, due to leptin resistance, the signaling between the leptin and the brain does not occur. The person continues to eat more and put on weight around the abdomen and elsewhere in the body.

Testosterone deficiency

This is cause of belly fat seen in males. Testosterone is a very important sex hormone in males. Females also produce this hormone, though in a lower concentration. In both genders, testosterone promotes muscle growth.

Its deficiency due to old age or any other health condition can stop muscle growth and cause you to put on weight. You will see the effects of this weight gain more around your midriff.

Estrogen deficiency

This cause of hormonal belly fat is restricted to the male population. Estradiol, a type of estrogen hormone, is essential for erectile function, production of sperms, and libido. Low levels will adversely affect your sexual function and cause you to put on extra weight around the abdomen.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)

Females with PCOS have higher levels of androgens and insulin hormones. Insulin is responsible for controlling blood sugar levels.

Constant high levels can develop into insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels. This leads to weight gain and the deposit of fat around the abdomen.


In women, after menopause, fat starts being deposited on various parts of the body, more so around the midriff.

Women often experience an increase in body fat during menopause. This is associated with reduced estrogen levels, sleep deprivation, and decreased metabolism and muscle mass. Research has linked low estrogen levels with an increase in abdominal fat.


There are various causes of belly fat, which you should try to identify and address. The health dangers of a large abdominal girth have been explained. Take measures to lose belly fat and stay healthy.