Love handles, spare tire, beer belly, “apple” shape — there are a lot of nicknames for the excess fat around the stomach that so many people struggle to lose. Even if you’re following a healthy diet and exercising, you may find it hard to drop the fat around your middle.
In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks about how to reduce stubborn belly fat with Samantha Harris, MD, an endocrinologist at Scripps Clinic Del Mar, who specializes in weight management and diabetes care.
If you have belly fat — also known as central stomach fat — your genes might be to blame. Genetics is the most common cause of belly fat; some people tend to gain weight around their abdomen before it shows up anywhere else. Diabetes may make you more prone to belly fat, as can some medications. For women, pregnancy and menopause can both contribute to excess belly weight.
“Menopause causes a lot of changes. It can affect your metabolism, partly because you lose some of the muscle that contributes it,” says Dr. Harris. “You can also develop resistance to insulin, which can promote weight gain, especially in the stomach.”
There are two types of belly fat. Subcutaneous fat is found directly beneath the skin and can be “pinched” between your fingers. Visceral fat surrounds the organs in the abdominal area. It lies deep beneath the muscles and can be seen and felt but not pinched. Visceral fat poses a greater health concern that subcutaneous fat.
“Extra weight in the tummy can be a sign that you carry extra weight inside your body. If you have an enlarged abdomen, you might also have fat deposits in other organs like your liver or your heart,” explains Dr. Harris. “That can put you at higher risk for things like liver disease or liver failure, or even at higher risk for heart attacks and stroke.”
In general, the best way to lose weight anywhere on your body, including around your middle, is by changing the lifestyle habits that contribute to weight gain. This includes making changes to the way you eat. Simply reducing or cutting out sodas or beer, for example, can help reduce a “beer belly” in people who tend to gain abdominal weight.
Exercise is a major factor in managing weight and losing fat. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate to high-intensity cardiovascular exercise most days of the week. Strength training, either with weights or your own body weight, can also burn calories and boost your metabolism.
If for some reason the weight gain is related to high insulin levels or diabetes and insulin resistance, then limiting processed carbohydrates and processed sugars or simple sugars can be helpful.
“Unfortunately, there’s no supplement or medication that just speeds up your metabolism or targets the stomach,” says Dr. Harris. “However, there are medications that can help with insulin resistance and blood sugar levels, so if that’s the problem that’s causing the central weight gain, these medications can be beneficial.”
If your fat is only around the belly and you’re otherwise fit, surgery that removes fat from specific areas may help reduce subcutaneous belly fat (but will not reduce visceral fat). Liposuction, for example, is a type of surgery that suctions out excess fat from the abdomen, hips or elsewhere to reduce fat deposits and reshape the body. The weight loss must be maintained after the procedure; otherwise, the excess weight can come back.
“If your belly fat is bothering you either physically or emotionally, if your overall weight has increased or if you’re concerned you have a medical condition that is causing it, absolutely talk to your doctor,” says Dr. Harris.
“They can help you determine what is causing the belly fat and work out a plan to help you reduce it, which can also improve your overall health and well-being.”