If your waistband is feeling tight, you’re not alone – 60 percent of adults carry extra weight in the midsection, according to Kathleen Zelman, RD, MPH. Adult men, women after menopause, people who have more than a few alcoholic drinks daily, and smokers are more likely to see their midsections bulge, says Zelman. Although it’s common to brush off belly flab as a “normal” result of aging, it can be harmful to your health to carry around a "spare tire" or a "muffin top." Luckily, this area of the body is often the first to lose weight when you make food-choice and lifestyle changes.
Types of Midsection Weight
If your midsection has pinchable “love handles,” “saddlebags” or “back fat,” it's subcutaneous fat, which is just under the skin. This fat builds up slowly and can be hard to get rid of. This fat can be unsightly and bothersome, adding to your overall weight gain. Although it can become problematic if you gain too much weight, doctors generally don’t consider subcutaneous fat as dangerous to your health as deeper abdominal fat.
A potbelly or apple shape, on the other hand, indicates the weight you’ve gained in the midsection is visceral fat – the kind that’s deep under the skin, surrounding your organs. This type of midsection weight gain can disrupt normal hormone function, and has links to both cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Of greatest concern are waist measurements of 35 inches or more in women and 40 inches or more in men.
Food and Midsection Weight Gain
The types of food you choose are likely playing a role in your midsection weight gain. Consuming too many refined grains – white bread and pasta, breakfast cereal and baked goods, for example – can contribute. Research into the eating habits of 2,800 subjects, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010, found that refined-grain intake has direct links to both subcutaneous and visceral abdominal fat. Increasing your consumption of whole grains like whole wheat bread and pasta, oatmeal, brown rice, barley, quinoa and millet can help trim your midsection.
The fats you choose may also be to blame. A study published in the journal Diabetes in 2014 found that subjects with greater intake of saturated fats accumulated more visceral abdominal fat than those with higher intakes of polyunsaturated fat. Saturated fats are found in animal foods like meat, full-fat dairy and butter, while polyunsaturated fats occur in plant-based oils and in fish.
Sugar-sweetened foods and drinks play a part in midsection weight gain, too. In research published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2009, overweight and obese subjects consuming soft drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup or with glucose both experienced weight gain, but only the fructose-sweetened beverage increased visceral belly fat.
Although no one diet will target your belly fat, a good route to a trimmer midsection appears to be through smarter food choices – whole grains, lean fats from plant foods and fish, and whole, natural foods like fruits and vegetables instead of sugar-laden processed foods and drinks.
Exercise and Your Midsection
If you’ve gained weight in the abdomen, a contributing cause may be lack of exercise. Poor food choices coupled with a sedentary job and overall lifestyle make midsection weight gain more likely. However, belly fat responds well to exercise, says Harvard Medical School. Harvard suggests getting 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a day for weight loss – brisk walking, running, biking, using cardio machines – and combining it with weight-training. In one small study, obese women who participated in high-intensity aerobic exercise over the course of four months were able to shed the most belly fat – both visceral and subcutaneous. The results were published in 2009 in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
Harvard points out that, while exercises like sit-ups may firm up your belly, they won’t eliminate deep visceral fat. Ask your doctor about an exercise program that is safe for you.
Stress and Belly Fat
Stress is another factor that could be at the root of your midsection weight gain. Your body has a natural stress response that may malfunction when you are under chronic stress – maybe you have a demanding job with a difficult boss, or you are taking care of a sick family member. Under constant stress, your body pumps out too much cortisol, a stress hormone. You may overeat, especially foods that feel comforting, like sugary treats, or indulge in too many alcoholic drinks. As it turns out, cortisol has a greater impact on visceral fat cells than subcutaneous fat cells, leading to a buildup of deep belly fat.
You can’t eliminate stress from your life, but you can modulate your response to it. Having stress-management techniques in your lifestyle toolbox will help. Try deep-breathing at your desk when the boss is on a rampage, or practicing yoga when you get home from work. Activities that you enjoy – a walk in the woods, listening to music, playing with your dog, or even coloring – can de-stress you and put you at reduced risk for midsection weight gain.