The Science Behind Belly Fat in Females

The Science Behind Belly Fat in Females

Many women pass their expanding waistlines off as the price of getting older. As a woman enters menopause, belly fat tends to congregate around the abdomen, and there it will remain, much to their frustration.

This is in contrast to the way men tend to gain weight. As men grow older, fat often accumulates inside their abdominal cavity resulting in the expansion of their abdominal wall outward. This gives the appearance of having a “big stomach.”

While a big belly can make wearing clothes uncomfortable and can make you feel self-conscious about your appearance, there are broader risks involved with a bigger than average stomach.

Here are some things to consider if you are a female with a rounder belly than you would prefer, and you desperately want the bulge to disappear.

The amount you weigh is dependent on three primary factors.

Calories Consumed

Most of us are no stranger to the unit of measurement known as the calorie. A calorie is the amount of heat energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. The more calories you take in, the more energy you can potentially store. If you consume more calories than your body needs, the excess can be stored as troublesome fat.

Calories Burned

Every action we take requires energy. We get our energy from the foods we eat. Most of us know that exercise is one of the easiest ways to burn excess calories. If you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. Conversely, if you eat more than you burn all those calories will add up, leading to weight gain.

Muscle Mass

Muscle weighs more than fat. Also, the more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn at rest. Unfortunately, most of us tend to lose muscle mass as we age, meaning we burn fewer calories at rest. Losing muscle mass and gaining more fat is typical as we grow older.

As such, many women notice an increase in belly fat as they age, even if they aren’t gaining weight. This is due to a decreasing level of oxygen, which can influence where fat is distributed on the body.

For some women, gaining weight around the waist, which can give you an apple or pear shape, could be genetic.

Belly Fat Means More than Meets the Eye

When you examine your bulging stomach in the mirror, you are only seeing the padded layer located just below the skin. This is known as subcutaneous fat.

Your belly also includes visceral fat, which exists deep within your abdomen and which works to surround and protect your internal organs.

While you may be fretting about your expanding subcutaneous fat, as a female, your visceral fat is the one to be most concerned about.

Men tend to accumulate visceral fat preferentially as they get older.

Potential Issues with Excess Visceral Fat

The more visceral fat you build around your abdomen, the more susceptible you are to a host of medical issues, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol, and breathing problems.

Research also shows that high amounts of belly fat can also contribute to a risk of premature death, regardless of how much you weigh overall. In fact, some studies show that even when women were considered a normal weight based on their BMI (body mass index) measurements, their large waistline increased their risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

What is Considered a Big Stomach in Women?

You can determine if you have excess belly fat by measuring your waist. Stand and place a tape measure around your bare stomach just above the hip bone area. Then, pull the tape measure until it fits snugly, but not so hard that it pushes into your skin. The tape measure should be level all the way around for the most accurate results.

As a woman, if your belly measures more than 35 inches, you are considered to have an unhealthy concentration of belly fat, leaving you at a greater risk of future health problems.

Why Are You Gaining Belly Fat?

In addition to the aging process, lifestyle habits are the usual culprit to having a bigger stomach than you would prefer.

These lifestyle habits include:

Consuming Sugary Foods and Beverages

Most of us take in more sugar than we realize each day. Foods high in sugar like cookies and candies are easy to eat in excess. Then there are the sugar-laden drinks like sweet teas and flavored coffees. Before you know it, a single serving can bring you over the amount of sugar you should be consuming daily, leading to an excess of fat in and around your stomach. Experts believe that high sugar intake and excess belly fat are due to the amount of high fructose that is added to most foods and drinks.

Both standard sugar and high-fructose corn syrup have high amounts of fructose. While sugar has 50% fructose, high-fructose corn syrup has 55% fructose.

Not only can both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup lead to more belly fat, but it is easy to go overboard, especially when it comes to beverages.

Case in point, you may think you are drinking healthily by reaching for the fruit juice, but beware. Fruit juice is a sugary beverage if there ever was one. A single serving of apple juice and cola each contain around 24 grams of sugar. Grape juice has 32 grams of sugar. While these juices may contain some vitamins and minerals, the fructose packed into these drinks can drive insulin resistance, which promotes higher levels of belly fat.

Imbibing Excessively with Alcohol

When consumed in moderate amounts, alcoholic drinks like wine can be healthy, leading to less of a risk of heart attacks and strokes.

However, drink too much, and you leave yourself open to developing inflammation, liver disease, and other serious health problems.

Heavy drinking of alcohol can also suppress fat burning. To make matters worse, excess calories from alcohol are partly stored as belly fat. This is where we get the term “beer belly.”

Eating an Unhealthy Amount of Trans Fats

Of all the fats on the planet, trans fats are the unhealthiest. Food manufacturers add trans fats to extend the shelf life of packaged foods like crackers, muffins, and baking mixes.

Consuming too many trans fats has been shown to cause inflammation, which can, in turn, lead to insulin resistance, as well as heart disease. Filling up on trans fats can also lead to an excess amount of belly fat.

Living a Sedentary Lifestyle

Advancements in technology have caused us to become less active than previous generations. This trend to sit more than move has played a significant role in the rising rates of obesity, including abdominal obesity.

A recent study compared women who watched more than three hours of TV daily to those who watched less than an hour. The group that watched more TV had twice the risk of severe abdominal obesity compared to the group that watched less. Studies have also shown that inactivity can contribute to the regain of belly fat after losing weight.

Not Eating Enough Protein

Getting adequate amounts of dietary protein is one of the most important factors in preventing weight gain, including belly fat.

Eating a high-protein diet can make you feel fuller faster. More protein can also increase your metabolic rate while reducing your caloric intake.

Studies show that people who consume the highest amount of protein are the least likely to have excess belly fat.


It is common for women to gain belly fat during menopause.

During puberty, the hormone estrogen tells the body to begin storing fat on the hips and thighs to prepare for pregnancy. While this subcutaneous fat isn’t harmful, the excess fat can be difficult to lose.

Menopause officially occurs a year after a woman has her last menstrual period. Around this time, the woman’s estrogen levels plummet, which causes fat to be stored around the abdomen rather than on the hips and thighs.

Some women gain more belly fat during menopause than others, usually due to genetics and the age at which menopause begins. Women who complete menopause at a younger age, for example, tend to gain the least amount of abdominal fat.

Too Much Stress & Cortisol

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that we rely on for survival. Referred to as the “stress hormone,” having too much cortisol can lead to weight gain, particularly around the abdominal area.

To make matters worse, many people respond to high levels of cortisol by overeating. However, instead of spreading out the storage across the entire body, greater amounts of stress cause fat to be stored right where you don’t want – on your belly.

Studies show that women who have larger waists compared to their hips secrete more cortisol when stressed, which may be why you have a big stomach.

Having the Wrong Gut Bacteria

Your gut is filled with hundreds of types of bacteria, the majority of which live in your colon. While some of these bacteria can benefit your health, others can cause one or more health problems.

We refer to gut bacteria as your gut flora or microbiome, and we rely on these good bacteria to maintain a healthy immune system while avoiding disease.

If you have an imbalance of gut bacteria, you are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease, as well as several other diseases. A gut health imbalance can also promote weight gain, including abdominal fat.

Studies show that obese individuals have more significant amounts of Firmicutes bacteria than those of a healthy weight. These types of bacteria may increase the amount of calories that are absorbed from the foods you eat, leading to weight gain.

A Low Fiber Diet

Eating foods high in fiber is important for maintaining good health and controlling your weight. Some types of fiber can stabilize your hunger hormones, helping you feel full while reducing caloric absorption.

Diets high in refined carbs and low in fiber have the opposite effect on appetite and weight gain, leading to increased levels of unhealthy belly fat.


Your genes play a significant role in your risk of obesity. In fact, experts believe that the tendency to store fat in your abdomen is partly influenced by genetics. Included is the gene for the receptor that regulates cortisol and the one that codes for the leptin receptor, which works to regulate caloric intake and fat storage.

In 2014, researchers identified three new genes linked with an increased waist-to-hip ratio and belly fat, including two only found in women.

Lack of Sleep

Getting a proper amount of sleep each night is critical for health. Studies show that inadequate sleep can lead to weight gain, including an excess of belly fat. A major study followed nearly 70,000 women for 16 years. Those who slept fewer than five hours per night were 32% more likely to gain 32 pounds than those who slept at least seven years.

A variety of sleep disorders can also lead to weight gain. One of the most common sleep disorders, sleep apnea, which causes you to stop breathing periodically during the night, can leave you particularly susceptible to weight gain.


After pregnancy, your belly changes shape. Your uterus drops, and the abdominal muscles shift around. These alterations can make it difficult for your body to regain muscular strength. This leaves subcutaneous fat showing front and center until the musculature is regained.

What Can Be Done About Your Big Stomach?

As you can see, there are many factors that can lead to a bigger stomach in females. If you are a woman and you want to lose your belly fat, there are several steps you can take. You may not be able to change your genetics, but you can become more active, reduce your caloric intake, stop eating so many sugars and trans fats, and cut back on the stress and alcohol.

Unfortunately, some life events like pregnancy and menopause can prevent the weight from shifting. No matter how healthy you may live, your belly fat may not budge an inch. Fortunately, there are other steps you can take.

If you have a BMI of 35 or more, you may be a candidate for bariatric (weight loss) surgery like the gastric sleeve.

Before opting for surgery, however, you should attempt to live a healthier lifestyle, which can help weight loss surgery be more effective.

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