There’s a common belief that the accumulation of abdominal fat is a natural part of the aging process. How often do we see men, or women, with the seemingly inescapable middle-age paunch? While observation would suggest that simple aging is one of the biggest causes of belly fat, that’s not the whole story. There are significant physical and hormonal changes that come into play. These need to be understood in order to understand how to lose belly fat.
The Major Causes Of Belly Fat
While the immediate cause of overweight, or obesity, is excessive calorie consumption, research has shown the accumulation of belly fat can be attributed to some very specific causes.
Most people are familiar with the prototypical middle-age paunch, and while its not something most people would aspire to attain, aging is generally considered one of the leading causes of belly fat accumulation. Studies have shown that between 25-35 years of age, adults begin to experience a reduction in muscle mass. Although the reasons aren’t completely clear, some scientists speculate it is related to levels of human growth hormone. Regardless of the cause, the end-result is a loss of muscle mass, at a rate of approximately 2% per year. All things being equal, people with a larger percentage of muscle mass generally have higher metabolisms. Without intervention, this process becomes a downward spiral, with fat becoming a larger part of our body composition, as it naturally accumulates throughout the body.
Fortunately, combating the loss of muscle mass is relatively straightforward. Load-bearing exercises (like strength training) are the ideal approach to retaining, and even gaining, muscle mass. Studies have shown that, regardless of age or gender, adding a strength-training regimen to your daily routine can result in increased muscle mass, reduced susceptibility to injuries, and improvements in overall mobility. The best part is that it doesn’t take large amounts of weight to be effective.
Often associated with aging, fluctuations in hormone levels have a dramatic effect on overall health. For men, reductions in testosterone levels associated with aging directly affect muscle mass. For women, estrogen has been shown to exert direct influence on where fat is deposited in the body. In both cases, the end-result is the accumulation of belly fat.
It’s worth pointing out that aging isn’t the only culprit when it comes to hormone levels. Both environmental factors and foods can also exert an influence on hormone levels. The role of both birth control pills and soy-products in regulating estrogen is well-accepted. At the same time, the possible effects of estrogen-mimetics in many plastics, and their negative effect on baby boys, has driven changes in the packaging industry. Similarly, overly aggressive reduction of cholesterol from diets can result in low testosterone in men.
Known as the stress hormone, cortisol has long-been considered one of the leading causes of belly fat. Sleep patterns, lifestyle, and genetics all play a role in how our body expresses cortisol. A study at Yale showed that, regardless of weight, women who have higher levels of belly fat are more sensitive to the stress hormone. Other studies have shown that, once present, fat stored around the abdomen expresses higher levels of cortisol, creating a viscious cycle. Similarly, the use of cortisone products, or immune-related diseases, can also affect cortisol, and are consequently related to abdominal fat.
Studies have shown these are three of the leading causes of belly fat accumulation within the body. Fortunately, with adaptations to lifestyle, they can often be overcome. Despite the allure, there is scant evidence that targeted exercises, or specific foods, are effective at reducing belly fat. But small, incremental changes if lifestyle are almost guaranteed to provide a foundation for effective, long-term weight loss.
Published October 2011. Reviewed November 2011.
- “Central Obesity in Women” MayoClinic.com. Accessed October 2011.
- “Central Obesity in Men” MayoClinic.com. Accessed October 2011.
- “Do Stress Reactions Cause Central Obesity and Comorbidies?” Obes Rev. 2001 May;2(2):73-86. Accessed October 2011.