Why Belly Fat Can Be So Stubborn
[updated September 2019]
If you were to ask anyone wanting to lose weight which area of their body they’d most like to reduce fat in, the words “my belly” would come up frequently. This is because belly fat is hard to get rid of. In fact, during weight loss, your abdominal area will often hold onto fat even while other areas of your body are slimming down.
And losing belly fat isn’t just good for external appearances. Carrying excess weight around your abdomen can also impact your long-term health by putting you at greater risk for developing conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
So why is belly fat so stubborn?
Why is Belly Fat So Stubborn?
You get fat around the belly for the same reason you get fat build-up anywhere else on the body – you’re consuming more energy (calories) than the body is using. When this happens that excess energy gets stored in the body as fat. You’ll never be able to get rid of your stomach fat – or any stubborn fat for that matter – unless you’re burning more energy than you’re taking in (typically through a sensible combination of diet and exercise).
It’s more difficult to shift belly fat because it has a higher amount of fat cells that don’t respond as easily to the fat-breakdown process (lipolysis). In fact, your stomach fat tends to release more slowly than from other areas of the body. This is because these fat cells have a different type of receptor than normal fat cells – they have what are known as “alpha receptor” instead of “beta receptors,” which release fat faster.
Abdominal fat is largely broken into 2 categories: visceral and subcutaneous. Visceral abdominal fat surrounds the abdominal organs whereas subcutaneous abdominal fat lies between the skin and the abdominal wall. While neither type is good for your overall health, visceral fat has been strongly linked to serious risk factors like insulin resistance which sets the stage for type 2 diabetes. In addition, excess abdominal fat is also linked to poor metabolic health. Other major risk factors associated with excess abdominal fat include heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal blood fats, inflammation and premature death.
So, when you lose weight you’ll typically see more initial weight loss from the fat cells with beta receptors while the fat cells with alpha receptors like those in the abdomen area will be slower to respond causing the weight loss in that area to be slower.
How the Body Stores Fat
Most people know that the food you eat can turn into fat in your body, but how does that process actually work?
This video shows how the calories you eat are used as energy to fuel your body’s functions, from digesting your food to completing physical activity. If there are excess calories left, your body will store them as fat. Weight loss plans focus on reducing your caloric intake so that your body has to use those stored calories for energy instead of having a surplus. Restricting calories makes losing weight possible by both preventing additional fat storage and requiring the body to use reserved energy to function.
Other Factors Contributing to Belly Fat Stubbornness
You’re Eating the Wrong Types of Fat
Yes, you read that right—eating certain fats can aid in your efforts to lose weight. Studies have shown that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, when eaten within the boundaries of a low-calorie diet, can actually help reduce belly fat. So be sure that foods with these high-quality fats, such as salmon, olive oil, and avocados, are part of your diet plan.
You’re Eating Too Much Bad Fat
This is a concept you’re probably familiar with. Not all fats are unhealthy, but saturated fats are, and they’re known to contribute to belly fat. You should cut down on saturated fats, like those in red meat and high-fat dairy products, and replace them with foods rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
You’re Feeling Stressed Out
Stress hormones encourage your body to retain more bulk around your middle. But as stress is a pretty abstract concept, getting rid of it is easier said than done. One way to start is to familiarize yourself with your stress triggers. Does rush hour traffic put a cloud over the rest of your day? Does it drive you crazy to be in a busy and crowded supermarket? Take note of these feelings and aim to rearrange your schedule to reduce your encounters with avoidable stress triggers.
You’re Not Breaking a Sweat or the Right Type of Sweat
While low intensity workouts are beneficial for weight loss, be sure that you’re also incorporating high intensity interval training (HIIT) into your weight loss program. Sweat-inducing exercises up your heart rate and burn more calories in less time. Plus, they reduce insulin and cortisol, the hormones that cause your body to hang onto belly fat.
Additionally, you need to add in strength training to increase muscle mass which sets your body up to burn more fat.
You’re Getting Older
As you get older, your body changes how it gains and loses weight. Both men and women experience a declining metabolic rate, or the number of calories the body needs to function normally. The shift in hormones and metabolic rate make it difficult to lose weight.
You’re Eating Too Many Processed Foods
Weight loss mainly happens in the kitchen which means it’s important to eat a healthy diet that is low in processed foods. Refined grains like white bread, crackers, chips and refined sugars like sweetened drinks and desserts increase inflammation in our bodies and they are typically packed with calories. Excess calories lead to fat storage. And belly fat is associated with inflammation so eating too many processed foods will hinder your ability to lose belly fat.
Stick to natural foods like fruits and vegetables, ideally low-glycemic fruits and vegetables which don’t spike insulin levels.
What are the Dangers & Risks of Belly Fat?
Many people consider fat of any kind bad for health, but certain types of fat can prove more dangerous than others. Studies show that the fat that collects around the abdominal area can be particularly harmful to well-being. Among its many adverse side effects, belly fat can increase the likelihood of many serious health events, including heart attacks and stroke.
Increases Risk of Dangerous Diseases
Many scientific research studies have proven that excess fat around the midsection increases one’s risk of life-threatening diseases. Belly fat can significantly increase your risk of developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
You’re also at a higher risk of suffering from a stroke. Weight loss through a healthy exercise and diet plan will reduce your risk of developing dangerous diseases. Lifelong weight management will further cut your risks.
Places Added Stress on Back
Weak muscles in your midsection cause the majority of back pain and back problems. Excess abdominal weight puts additional stress on your back muscles, and can eventually destabilize the spine. When you have poor muscle tone and excess belly fat, the muscles in your butt and legs will have to compensate for the strength that your abdominal muscles should be providing.
Over time, you’ll develop back pain, back strain, and even more serious back problems. Luckily, strengthening your abdominal muscles through regular exercise and joining a weight loss program will eliminate this excess fat and take the pressure off of your muscles, bones, and joints.
Causes Serious Joint Pain
Your body relies on your abdominal muscles for support during the majority of physical activities that you do throughout the day. Whether you’re walking, sitting, standing, playing sports, or working, your abdominal muscles act to stabilize the body during start and stop movements.
When your abdominal muscles are weak, your joints will absorb all of the force from this physical activity. After a while, you’ll begin to experience joint pain, particularly in your knees, hips, and back. As you lose weight, less stress will be placed on your joints, and your abdominal muscles will become stronger and more reliable.
What Can You Do to Lose Belly Fat?
What can you do about a tubby tummy? Bring weight under control with a healthy diet and regular moderate-intesity physical activity. Studies are showing that the best way to exercise to decrease your excess abdominal fat is through aerobic exercise. Even though weight training can help you get lean and tone, aerobic exercise will shed that excess fat faster.
Using a statistical technique called meta-analysis, scientists were able to determine, with a sample size of more than 2,000 individuals, that aerobic exercise decreased abdominal fat while weight training had no effect.
So if you are looking for a way to boost your abdominal fat loss, focus on aerobic exercise. Types of aerobic exercise include running, swimming, biking, rollerblading, soccer, spinning classes, Zumba and basically any type of exercise that keeps your heart rate elevated and breaking a sweat.
Additionally, you can opt for a healthy diet consisting of lean proteins, low-glycemic fruits and vegetables and healthy fat. 80% of weight loss comes from diet which means you need to have a consistent healthy diet in order to trigger fat loss in the abdomen.
Losing weight is not something that happens overnight. Aside from spending money on non-invasive aesthetic treatments, there is no way to spot reduce stubborn areas of fat through diet and exercise. In order to get the results you want, and get rid of stubborn belly fat, you need to stick with a healthy diet (and you can also incorporate regular exercise for better results).
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About the Author – Suzanne Gil, M.D.
Dr. Suzanne Gil obtained advanced training in bariatrics (weight loss medicine) and opened Calla Slimspa Medical Weight Loss Center located in Orlando, FL in 2008 when the need for weight related assistance became a huge priority. She is a member of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians (ASBP) and dedicates 100% of her professional time to helping as many people as possible achieve their weight loss goals and improve their health. She completed her residency at Orlando Regional Medical Center and is a Board Certified Pediatrician.