Weight Loss

What causes belly fat in women and how to lose it? | Dietitian tips

May 17, 2024

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

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Contents

Key Points

  • Excess belly fat leads to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers.
  • There are many reasons why females gain belly fat, particularly with aging.
  • You can reduce belly fat with the right diet, more physical activity, better gut health, and clinical help for hormonal imbalances.  

Belly fat is dreaded, stubborn, and hard to lose. It’s more than just an annoyance—it’s a serious health risk.

Women with a waist circumference greater than 35 inches are at a higher risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. An increase in belly fat raises the risk of various chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease, dementia, asthma, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer.

The good news is that if you lose belly fat, you can gain health benefits immediately.

Types of belly fat

Visceral fat

Visceral fat lurks deep inside your abdomen and wraps around vital organs like the liver, stomach, intestines, and pancreas.

This type of abdominal fat is more dangerous than its counterpart because it’s metabolically active, which means it can release harmful hormones and chemicals into the bloodstream.

Studies show that high levels of visceral fat are linked to increased risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

Subcutaneous fat

Subcutaneous fat is the layer of fat just under the skin. This is the type you can pinch with your fingers—the stuff that jiggles.

While less harmful than visceral fat, excess subcutaneous fat can contribute to obesity-related issues like insulin resistance. Due to genetics, sex, and hormones, women may often store more fat in their hips and thighs.

What makes you gain belly fat?

Menopause

Menopause belly fat and weight gain are all too real for many women, often starting a few years before menopause during perimenopause.

Hormonal changes, muscle loss, and genetics all contribute to menopause weight gain. Plus, as we age, many of us become more sedentary, and our diets might lean more towards non-nutritious foods.

Registered Dietitian Rita Faycurry, RD, explains, "A natural drop in estrogen during menopause is a major reason for belly fat. Plus, as we age, we lose muscle mass, which slows down our metabolism, making it harder to shed abdominal fat. These changes combine to make managing weight more challenging during this stage of life."

PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome)

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine disorder that can lead to insulin resistance and an excess of male hormones, resulting in thick hair growth on the face and body, and can interfere with ovulation and fertility.

Says Faycurry, RD, "PCOS is strongly linked to weight gain, with 35% to 60% of women with PCOS being obese. Studies show that losing just 5% of body weight can improve fertility, though weight loss with PCOS can be challenging. Achieving a healthy weight is possible with the right team of experts, including a Registered Dietitian experienced in managing PCOS."

Poor diet

Poor diet choices can lead to increased belly fat. Here are the foods that can lead to excess body fat:

  • Ultra-processed foods
  • Added sugars and foods rich in high fructose corn syrup
  • Salty and fatty foods
  • A low-fiber diet
  • A diet rich in carbohydrates and starchy vegetables
  • Too much alcohol.

Bad gut health

Our gut is home to trillions of bacteria and fungi, most of which are 'good bacteria' essential for our health. However, a bacterial imbalance can lead to various health issues, including excess abdominal fat.

Poor gut health can affect digestion, metabolism, and overall well-being, contributing to weight gain around the belly. Genetics, too many processed foods, a diet rich in added sugars, stress, alcohol, tobacco, poor dental care, and even antibiotics can impair gut health.

A Registered Dietitian can help you manage your diet, improve your gut health, and help you lose belly fat. Fay can help you find a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist near you, covered by your insurance.

Stress

Stress can lead to weight gain, particularly belly fat, due to the stress hormone cortisol.

When you're stressed, your body produces more cortisol, which increases appetite and cravings for high-fat, sugary foods. Cortisol also promotes abdominal fat storage, making stress a significant factor in weight gain, especially belly fat.

Sedentary life; not physically active enough

Studies demonstrate that a lack of physical activity is a leading cause of chronic diseases, including obesity. Sitting for long periods of time builds fat around our internal organs and increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and other medical conditions.

Not enough sleep

Not getting enough sleep can lead to various health problems, including belly fat. When you're sleep-deprived, you often feel fatigued, which makes you less likely to stay active. This combination can contribute to weight gain, especially around the abdomen.

Studies show a strong link between obesity and not getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night. When you're up late or wake up early, you're more likely to snack during these times, which can contribute to weight gain.

Side effects of certain medications

Certain medications, like antidepressants and antipsychotics, can cause weight gain, especially around the belly. Research shows that people on antidepressants are 20% more likely to experience weight gain. Drugs like Mirtazapine (Remeron) can stimulate appetite, increase food cravings, and promote fat storage throughout the body.

How to reduce belly fat in women?

Eat a balanced diet and fix your gut health

Faycurry, RD advises, "Eat more whole vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) recommend filling half your plate with whole non-starchy vegetables, about a quarter with lean protein and healthy fats, and the rest with whole grains. Protein needs vary from person to person; a Registered Dietitian can help you figure out how much you need in your diet."

Foods to eat

  • Whole vegetables and fruit: Non-starchy whole vegetables and fruits are packed with vitamins, nutrients, essential minerals, and soluble fiber.
  • Healthy fats: These include nuts, seeds, and healthy oils like olive oil and avocado oil.
  • Lean protein: Eat chicken breast, turkey breast, fish, and egg whites to get your protein intake. Legumes and lentils are great vegetarian sources of protein.
  • Probiotics: These include fermented foods like kefir, kombucha (without added sugars), miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, and kimchi that help boost your gut health.
  • Insoluble fiber: Insoluble fiber can soften your stool and help your digestive process. Foods rich in insoluble fiber include brown rice, whole wheat bread, and steel-cut oats.

Foods to avoid or limit

  • Starchy vegetables: These include potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantain, corn, green peas, and butternut squash.
  • Fruit juices and smoothies: consider choosing whole fruit instead of fruit juice.
  • Alcohol
  • Added sugars.

Get checked for hormonal imbalances

Consult a healthcare provider and a Registered Dietitian to learn if you may have medical conditions like PCOS, type 2 diabetes, or prediabetes. These conditions are often linked to insulin resistance, a key factor causing abdominal fat storage. With professional help, identifying and managing these issues can lead to better health.

Stay physically active

Did you know that your muscles can absorb up to 80% of your blood glucose after a meal? This absorption depends on how active you are. Try walking at a moderate pace for 20-30 minutes right after eating. If that's not possible, research shows that even a quick 2-5 minute walk can help. This simple activity prevents high blood glucose levels, reducing insulin resistance and fat storage.

Plus, try getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, according to the physical activity guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The guidelines also recommend two days of strength training, working on all major muscle groups.

Ready to lose belly fat and boost your health? Consult a Registered Dietitian for a personalized nutrition plan to kickstart your journey. Use Fay to find a Registered Dietitian near you, covered by your insurance.


The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.


Sources

Fay Nutrition has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

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Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network and has extensive experience working in the medical devices and life sciences industries. Chandana holds a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

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Rita Faycurry, RD

Medically Reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Rita Faycurry, RD is a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in clinical nutrition for chronic conditions. Her approach to health is centered around the idea that the mind and body are intimately connected and that true healing requires an evidence-based and integrative approach that addresses the root cause of disease. In her books and articles, Rita offers practical tips and insights on how to care for your body, mind, and spirit to achieve optimal health and wellness.

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