Muffin top is a lighthearted term people use to describe excess fat around the waistline and upper tummy. Much like a muffin expands beyond its paper wrapper when you bake it, a muffin top spreads up and over a beltline–and most people don’t like it!
Beyond aesthetics, muffin tops are a risk from a health standpoint. If you can pinch more than an inch of fat around the waist, you’re at higher risk of pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. So, it’s important to lower your risk of these common, life-shortening health problems by addressing what’s causing that unwanted roll of waist fat. Let’s look at 6 possible reasons you’re accumulating more fat around your waist.
You can have a muffin top at any age, but it becomes more common during middle age and later. In women, waist fat is related to a shift in hormones that happens around menopause. With menopause, a drop in estrogen changes where you store fat. Rather than nestling in your hips and thighs, body fat shifts to the waist and tummy. As estrogen falls, the stress hormone cortisol also rises, and it causes fat build-up around the waist too. Not everyone gets a muffin top as they age. The people who don’t are the folks who are most physically active and focused on a healthy lifestyle.
Another factor that contributes to age-related muffin tops is an age-related decline in insulin sensitivity. One of the signs of worsening insulin sensitivity is an expansion in waist size and deep tummy fat. With insulin resistance, you might notice a slow and gradual rise in your serum triglyceride level, a drop in HDL, the good cholesterol, along with a rise in blood pressure. These factors, along with an increase in waist size, are signs of metabolic syndrome, another term for pre-diabetes.
You can develop insulin resistance at any age, but aging is a risk factor. Yet women who have a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome are young and have insulin resistance. They also accumulate fat around their waist and upper top–the muffin top region. Therefore, age is a risk factor, but you can have it at any age. The more body fat you carry on your frame, the higher the risk.
When your body is under stress, your adrenal glands release a range of hormones, including one called cortisol, dubbed the stress hormone. Cortisol prepares your body to fight or for flight to help you act quickly during times of stress. Although cortisol breaks down glycogen and tells your liver to produce more glucose, so you have a ready source of fuel, it also increases the build-up of waist and belly fat. You won’t get a muffin top from short-term stress, but if it drags on, it can change your waist size. Plus, excess cortisol causes you to crave calorie-dense foods that are high in fat and sugar.
Not only does excess fat deposit in your pelvic cavity, but it also builds up around organs like your liver. In fact, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a syndrome marked by excess fat around the liver, is an epidemic in western countries. Therefore, a muffin top means you may also have excess fat around your liver. Fatty liver disease can progress to inflammation and, rarely, cirrhosis. Therefore, it’s important to know whether you have it and do what you can to lower your risk.
Lack of Sleep
Not sleeping enough over many days or weeks can spark a rise in cortisol. In turn, cortisol causes an increase in belly and waist fat. This isn’t surprising since not sleeping enough is a stressor on your body. Much like chronic mental and physical stress elevates cortisol, insufficient sleep causes your adrenal glands to produce more cortisol. Studies show that insomnia increases cortisol too. Quality of sleep also matters!
Eating the Wrong Foods
Eating an ultra-processed food diet can also add to your waistline and contribute to a muffin top. Sugar, especially sugar-sweetened drinks, are a contributor too. Even fruit juice, as healthy as it sounds, can increase waist and tummy fat since you’re missing the fiber that helps moderate blood sugar. Stick to whole fruit, non-starchy vegetables, high-quality protein sources, and healthy fats, and eliminate starchy and processed fare that lacks nutrition. A good diet to pattern yours after is the Mediterranean diet, an eating plan linked with a lower risk of a variety of common health problems, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.
Lack of Exercise
Not surprisingly, muffin tops are more common in sedentary people. Exercise can help vanquish a muffin top, but you need smart exercise. Hours of cardio each week may have the opposite effect to the one you’re looking for. You think the calories you burn will trim your waistline, but excessive cardio may stress your body to the point that your cortisol level rises and that will make it even harder to shed a muffin top. Switch some cardio for strength training. Replace some of your long sessions of moderate-intensity cardio with shorter, high-intensity interval training segments. You’ll get some cortisol release with intense exercise, but you’ll also get a burst of growth hormone and testosterone to counter the cortisol release.
Focus on sitting less too. Sitting for long periods of time increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and causes a rise in triglycerides. Even short periods of light exercise can help break up the sitting cycle and keep your body out of hibernation mode.
A muffin top can be a sign of health problems. We already mentioned metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovary syndrome. It can also be a sign of an underactive thyroid or a condition called Cushing’s syndrome. Some medications, particularly corticosteroids, can cause a muffin top too. If you notice your waistline is expanding, get a physical exam and blood work. Make sure there isn’t a health reason for your waistline expansion.
The Bottom Line
Now you know 6 reasons people develop a muffin top. On the plus side, lifestyle changes that address these issues can help you shed that extra pouch around the waist. If a muffin top is making it hard to wear your favorite tank tops, focus on upgrading your lifestyle!
· Yale News. “Study: Stress may cause excess abdominal fat in otherwise slender women”
· National Sleep Foundation. “Sleep Linked to Gains in Abdominal Fat”
· Sleep Med Clin. 2007 Jun; 2(2): 279–291. doi: 10.1016/j.jsmc.2007.04.002.