What could be more frustrating than tummy fat that just won’t seem to budge? You exercise and eat mindfully. Yet, your waistline won’t seem to shrink, and you can still pinch a generous amount of tummy fat between your fingers. For many people, particularly women after menopause, belly fat is hard to shed. Many people assume that when they lose weight, the tummy fat will dwindle away but that’s not always the case. If you’re over the age of 50, belly fat loss may be your biggest challenge, thanks to the hormonal shifts that make belly blubber stick around. Let’s look at some of the most common reasons tummy fat is so hard to lose and what you can do to lose it.
You’re Eating Too Many Processed Carbs
Many people still think that dietary fat is the culprit that keeps their tummy soft and their body fat percentage too high. But, certain types of fat, like the monounsaturated fats in olive oil and avocados, actually help your body shed that layer of insulation. Belly fat is more likely to be a problem if you consume too many processed carbs and sugary foods since these foods trigger a sharper increase in blood sugar and insulin. When insulin hangs around, it promotes fat storage, particularly around the tummy. In contrast, dietary fat has little impact on insulin release. Some studies even suggest that the body prioritizes oxidation of dietary monounsaturated fats for fuel. Plus, monounsaturated fat is a heart-healthy form of fat that has a favorable impact on lipid levels in the blood relative to saturated fat.
But, protein is also your belly-busting friend. Consuming dietary protein, non-starchy vegetables, and healthy fat sources give you an advantage when it comes to losing belly fat. Eating this way helps with satiety, as protein is the most satiating macronutrient. When you fill your plate with protein, you’re less likely to overeat or have cravings.
You’re Not Sleeping Enough
Lack of sleep works against you in two ways. For one, it causes a bump up in ghrelin, an appetite hormone that increases your desire to eat. Plus, long-term, inadequate sleep boosts cortisol, a hormone that’s particularly unfriendly to your waistline. Over the long-term, higher cortisol alters how fat is distributed on your body. Rather than storing fat in your buttocks and thighs, it shifts to your tummy and waistline.
Here’s the good news. You can help tame your cortisol level by sleeping at least 7 hours per night. If you’re having problems sleeping at night, cut back on blue light exposure after 7 p.m. Blue light suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone involved in sleep and the sleep-wake cycle. Devices like iPads, computer monitors, and smartphone screens release blue light. One way to reduce the effect is to wear orange, blue light blocking glasses in the evening. These are available online.
You’re Not Controlling Your Stress Level
We already mentioned cortisol in the context of sleep, but emotional or physical stress longer term also elevates cortisol, a hormone that favors fat storage in the belly. You can’t burn the candle at both ends long-term and expect not to experience the hormonal impact of stress. Even excessive exercise can disrupt your body enough to elevate cortisol and make it harder to shed belly fat. This is more likely to happen when you do long periods of moderate-intensity exercise like running.
You also get the release of cortisol, when you do short periods of intense exercise, like high-intensity interval training, but it’s shorter term in nature. Excessive exercise combined with calorie restriction is particularly stressful on the body and leads to dysregulation of cortisol. Find a technique you can do regularly to reduce stress. Some options include meditation, yoga, deep breathing, creative activities, and spending time in nature or with a pet. We all need outlets for stress.
You’re Taking Certain Medications
Some medications, particularly prednisone and other steroids used to treat inflammation, make it harder to shed belly fat. But, these aren’t the only ones. Certain antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, diabetes drugs, antipsychotic medications, and even blood pressure meds, particularly beta-blockers, can do it too. If you’re having trouble losing weight or shedding belly fat, ask your physician if you’re taking meds that are contributing.
You’re Focusing on the Wrong Exercises
Exercise can help you lose belly fat, but are you doing the right exercises? Contrary to what you see in the media, crunches or any type of isolation exercise that focuses on the abs will do little to trim down your belly. You need exercise that works the large muscle groups in the lower body, including squats, deadlifts, and push-ups to increase the burn and create a hormonal environment that favors fat loss.
You’re Drinking Soft Drinks, Even Sugar-Free Ones
It’s easy to see why sweetened soft drinks make it harder to lose belly fat, but what about sugar-free ones? A University of Texas Health Science Center study followed 375 seniors in Texas for almost 10 years. They found a direct link between diet soda consumption and an increase in belly fat. In fact, participants that drank one or more sugar-free sodas each day experienced an average increase in waist size of 3.16 inches. In contrast, those who drank none increased their waist size, on average, by only 0.8 inches. This study only showed a correlation, but it controlled well for other factors that might impact the results like how much the participants exercised, what they ate, etc.
You’re Including Alcohol in Your Diet
You’ve heard the term “beer belly,” but any type of alcohol consumed in excessive amounts contributes to tummy fat. How does alcohol increase the propensity towards belly fat? Studies suggest that when you consume alcohol, it suppresses fat burning and the fat you don’t burn gets stored as belly fat. Plus, alcohol has calories and we often don’t compensate for the calories we drink by eating less. You aren’t getting any meaningful nutrients when you drink alcohol either. And, don’t forget, a 5-ounce glass of wine has 150 calories and most of us drink alcohol with food, and usually not healthy food either. Broccoli simply doesn’t go well with alcohol.
You’re Sitting Too Much During the Day
If you exercise, you’re one step ahead of most of the population, but it won’t make up for sitting 6+ hours per day. Not only does sitting too much increase weight gain and belly fat, but research also shows the extra fat accumulates around organs like the liver. Even if you do a structured workout, it’s important to keep your body moving throughout the day, even if only for short periods of time.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, you have a better idea of why your belly fat won’t seem to budge. If you address these issues and still can’t get that tummy fat to budge, see your physician. You could have an underactive thyroid or other health issues, like metabolic syndrome, that make it harder to lose tummy fat.
Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight. Christine A. Maglione-Garves, Len Kravitz, Ph.D., and Suzanne Schneider, Ph.D.
University of California San Francisco. “Diet Soda and Belly Fat: A Growing Concern”
WebMD.com. “The Truth About Beer and Your Belly”
Medical News Today. “Sitting down can build fat around your organs, study shows”
University Health News. “Monounsaturated Fatty Acids—MUFA—Can Fight Belly Fat and Increase Longevity”