What is belly fat?

When we talk of belly fat we’re referring to that extra weight that sits around our middle. This fat is typically made up of two types – firstly, there’s the fat that lies just under the skin, the subcutaneous fat – this makes up about 90 per cent and it's the fat you can pinch with your fingers. The second type is called visceral or intra-abdominal fat and makes up the remaining 10 per cent. It’s this fat, which lies deep in the abdomen and accumulates around key organs like the liver, pancreas and intestines, that may be most problematic.


Why is extra belly fat a problem?

Although we may affectionately refer to our extra inches as 'love handles' or describe ourselves as cuddly, carrying too much abdominal weight does have a dark side. Visceral fat although small in proportion to other body fat is ‘active’, which means it produces messengers that influence how the body functions. These messengers include pro-inflammatory cytokines and compounds which influence how hormones like insulin work.

What this means is that when visceral fat starts to accumulate it may become a risk to our health, increasing our chances of developing conditions such as:

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How does belly fat accumulate?

We’re still learning about the exact mechanisms behind how we accumulate stomach fat, especially visceral fat, but we do know that stress and the hormone cortisol plays an important role, regardless of our age or life stage. In addition to this, a poor diet which is high in fast-releasing carbs and low in protein, combined with alcohol consumption, a lack of exercise and disturbed sleep will all influence our girth.

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Another factor is our genetic make-up, researchers believe our genes influence how effectively we burn energy, our behaviour and our risk of developing obesity and associated diseases.

How do I know if my belly fat is a problem?

An easy way to assess if there may be a problem is to measure your waist. Experts suggest that a waist measurement more than 80cm for women and more than 94cm for men suggests there may be an issue. These guidelines are adjusted for ethnicity with South Asian, Chinese and Japanese men recommended to have a waist circumference no more than 90cm. If your measurements exceed these guidelines and you are concerned, refer to your GP for further guidance.

Why is belly fat so hard to shift?

Belly fat is tricky to shift because there are so many factors influencing it. For example, where you gain fat will be influenced by your genes, your age and even your weight at birth, with smaller babies gaining more belly fat later in life. If you’re female and child-free then you’re less likely to develop high levels of visceral fat than if you are a mum.

Do hormones affect belly fat?

During reproductive life, women have less visceral fat than men, but this changes as oestrogen levels fall during midlife and at the menopause. At this stage, testosterone starts to play a more significant role in where women lay down fat, favouring the upper body rather than the hips and thighs, with our proportion of fat to body weight also increasing.

Menopause is not the only time when hormones play an influential role in fat storage. Women diagnosed with the condition PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) may also be prone to increased intra-abdominal fat storage.

Further reading:

Healthy ways to lose belly fat

Are you 'TOFI'? (Thin on the outside, fat on the inside)

Am I overweight?

50 easy ways to lose weight

Healthy eating hub

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a BANT Registered Nutritionist® with a post-graduate diploma in personalised nutrition and nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including Good Food.


All health content on goodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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