If you have a lower belly pooch, your first thought may be that you need to eat less; but while this may be true, your diet might not be the source of the problem. Stubborn belly fat can develop and stick around due to things like chronic stress, inflammation and insulin resistance.
If you can't lose your lower belly fat, take an honest look at your diet. If you determine that the foods you eat aren't the problem, it may be time for some other lifestyle tweaks that lower your stress levels and help reduce widespread, chronic inflammation.
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Lower belly fat has many causes that can range from eating too much to chronic stress and inflammation to insulin resistance. Getting regular exercise, eating an anti-inflammatory diet and managing stress levels can help you shed pounds and fight that lower belly pooch.
Lower Belly Pooch Dangers
You might want to get rid of your lower belly fat for cosmetic reasons, but trimming your waistline has benefits beyond what you look like. Belly fat, also coined "visceral fat," is different from other types of fat because it's biologically active.
It also goes beyond the layer right beneath the skin. If you have visible belly fat, it's likely that some of this fat extends deeper into the abdominal cavity where you can't even see it. Deep belly fat surrounds the abdominal organs, padding the space in between them.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, belly fat is linked to increased risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, which also increases your risk of having a stroke. In women, extra belly fat has also been linked to breast cancer and problems with the gallbladder that require surgical removal.
If you have stubborn belly fat, it might be because you're eating too much, but there are other lower belly fat causes that can be a little less obvious, too.
Eating Too Much
The most obvious reason that you might have a stubborn lower belly pooch is because you're simply eating too much. Even if you're eating a healthy diet, it's possible that you're underestimating the true amount of food and calories you're taking in. A study published in PLOS One in August 2013 notes that people who are eating healthy meals are actually more likely to underestimate calories than people who aren't.
According to researchers from the study, when participants were asked to guess the calorie count of food, they tended to guess a lower number of calories if that food was paired with a piece of fruit or vegetables than if the food was presented alone.
If you're trying to eat healthy to lose your lower belly fat, take an honest look at your portion sizes and make sure that you're staying within recommendations. This is even more important when you're eating healthy foods because of how easily you can deceive yourself.
Troublesome Insulin Resistance
According to a study published in Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome in April 2014, abdominal fat is the biggest predictor of insulin resistance, a condition in which your muscles, fat and liver don't respond as they should to insulin; and when you can't use insulin correctly, your body can't get access to glucose, either. This causes increases in both glucose and insulin in your blood and can eventually lead to pre-diabetes and Type 2 diabetes.
According to a report that was published in the Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry in September 2014, when you're insulin resistant, your body releases certain types of proteins called cytokines that stimulate the secretion of fat and, specifically, stores it in your belly. To add insult to injury, the more belly fat you have, the more cytokines your body releases.
One of the best ways to reverse insulin resistance, and prevent it from developing into Type 2 diabetes, is to exercise regularly and lose weight by eating a healthier diet and staying active.
Read more: Insulin Resistance and Estrogen
Stress and Inflammation
Chronic stress is also an important factor. Stress signals your body to release cortisol, a glucocorticoid (or stress hormone) that activates enzymes that promote the storage of fat, especially in your belly area. But it's not just the obvious forms of stress, like long work days or a long-term unhappy relationship that you have to watch out for.
An April 2018 report in Current Obesity Reports notes that sleep deprivation, chronic pain and inflammation all induce a stress response that becomes chronic if you don't learn ways to cope.
The study reported in Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome also notes that there's a direct connection between chronic inflammation and belly fat. You can combat chronic inflammation and target belly fat by reducing your intake of inflammatory foods, like:
- Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and pastries
- Fried foods
- Soda, juice and other sugar-sweetened beverages
- Processed meats (sausages, deli meat and hot dogs)
- Margarine and shortening
In addition to avoiding inflammatory foods, it's also really helpful to incorporate a lot of anti-inflammatory foods into your diet. Some examples of these types of foods include:
- Green, leafy vegetables
- Olive oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel and sardines)
- Low-sugar fruits, like berries
Read more: 10 Weird Side Effects of Stress
What Else You Can Do
The good news is that, once you're aware of the possible lower belly-fat causes, there are steps you can take to combat them and get rid of your pooch once and for all. Harvard Health Publishing notes that one of the most effective things you can do is exercise for 30 to 60 minutes every day. Overall strength training can help eliminate excess belly fat as you burn off fat and build lean muscle, but spot-training, like doing sit-ups or crunches, doesn't directly target belly fat.
In addition to strength training, it's also helpful to incorporate regular walking. According to the report published in the Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry in September 2014, walking helps target belly fat directly and can help improve insulin resistance and lower chronic inflammation, some of the major underlying causes of stubborn belly fat.
It's also a good idea to eliminate (or at least limit) the amount of alcohol you're drinking. Excess belly fat is often deemed a "beer belly," but it's not just beer that contributes. Drinking any type of alcohol in excess can make it harder to lose that lower belly fat. The Mayo Clinic recommends one to two drinks per day, at the most.
Reduce Your Stress
In addition to getting your diet and exercise routine in check, you can combat chronic inflammation and lower cortisol by managing your stress levels. It's unlikely that you'll ever be able to eliminate stress completely, but there are ways to train your body to handle stressful events and demanding workloads better.
Some examples of stress relief techniques include meditation, yoga, exercise and journaling. You can also reduce the impact of stress on your body by following a regular sleep schedule (and making sure you get to bed early enough to get at least eight hours of sleep) and managing any chronic pain or inflammation, according to the advice of your doctor.
- PLOS One: "Underestimating Calorie Content When Healthy Foods Are Present: An Averaging Effect or a Reference-Dependent Anchoring Effect?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It"
- Mayo Clinic: "Belly Fat in Men: Why Weight Loss Matters"
- Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry: "Effect of Walking Exercise on Abdominal Fat, Insulin Resistance and Serum Cytokines in Obese Women"
- Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome: "The Relationship Between Regional Abdominal Fat Distribution and Both Insulin Resistance and Subclinical Chronic Inflammation in Non-Diabetic Adults"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Metabolic Syndrome"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Insulin Resistance & Prediabetes"
- Current Obesity Reports: "Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Foods That Fight Inflammation"