Excessive belly fat—also known as visceral fat—doesn’t just take a toll on your looks. It can be seriously hazardous to your health. Visceral fat is different from subcutaneous fat, the fat that lies under your skin which you can grab or pinch. Visceral fat sits deep within the abdomen, around the intestines, stomach, liver and pancreas. There, it releases toxins that increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and other major health problems. Read on to find out the #1 cause of abdominal obesity—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You May Have Already Had COVID.
The #1 cause of visceral fat is a poor diet, particularly one high in added sugar, processed foods, and simple carbs (which the body quickly converts to sugar). That leads to weight gain that’s often difficult to lose, particularly in the abdominal area. “Fructose, or sugar, causes fat cells to mature faster, specifically in the visceral fat,” says the Cleveland Clinic. “A diet filled with fructose-containing sodas or drinks not only increases your calorie intake, but it impacts how the belly fat develops.”
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“If you eat too much and exercise too little, you’re likely to carry excess weight — including belly fat,” says the Mayo Clinic. “Your muscle mass might diminish slightly with age, while fat increases. Loss of muscle mass also decreases the rate at which your body uses calories, which can make it more challenging to maintain a healthy weight.” Your move: Get plenty of exercise. Moderate physical activity combined with strength training seems to work best at burning belly fat. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, including two sessions of strength training.
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To avoid a beer belly, don’t think you’re safe if you only stick to spirits. And it’s not just because alcohol tends to make you hungrier. The liver processes alcohol before anything else and will use those calories for energy. So if you drink to excess before or while you’re eating, the liver—busy processing alcohol—will store the protein and carbs you consume as fat. Guess where? To avoid the booze bulge, drink moderately: No more than two drinks a day for men and one drink for women.
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Chronic stress causes the body to produce more cortisol, the stress hormone, to help it cope. One of the things cortisol tells the body to do: Hold on to fat around the abdomen in case of emergency. This can give even otherwise thin people a bulging belly. Try to reduce stress with exercise and relaxation techniques, and talk to your doctor if you need help.
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Researchers at Wake Forest University found that dieters who slept five hours or less every night put on 2 1/2 times more belly fat than people who slept adequately (seven to nine hours a night). And night owls beware: A 2021 study found that people who went to bed at midnight or later late had a 20% greater risk of abdominal obesity. The risk was even higher—38%—for people who went to bed between 2am and 6am. Scientists theorize that going to bed late might throw off circadian rhythms, causing the body to produce more cortisol. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.