Struggling with abdominal fat that won’t seem to away? Sometimes the answer is a bit more complicated than just eat less and exercise more! Here are some things for women to consider when working to beat belly fat
Hey friends! Today’s post is a bit different than my normal ones. I’m getting all science-y up in here 😉 and this one is much longer than my regular posts. I had originally written this post to be featured in an online training journal, but some things changed so I’m sharing it here instead.
Here’s a common struggle many trainers hear from women: “I go to the gym every day and follow a good diet, but I can’t get rid of my tummy fat, it really bothers me. What should I do?”.
There are a host of things to consider when looking at body fat distribution in each person and this can be a complicated topic. If there was an easy answer to this question, then the weight loss industry wouldn’t be quite as big as it is ($60 billion or more a year1)! But even though it might take some time to figure out what works best for you as an individual, you can surely make progress.
Fat gain in the abdominal area isn’t just a vanity issue, it can be a major health concern outside of appearance. Fat gain primarily in the abdominal area for women can signal a change in hormones, or potentially pointing to hormone imbalances or disorders like PCOS.
People who gain fat in their abdominal area are more likely to develop metabolic diseases such as insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Since the abdominal area isn’t typically the first place women gain weight due to our unique hormone makeup, abdominal weight gain in women isn’t something that should be ignored!
It’s a great idea to work on the simple things first (like diet and exercise) before addressing any potentially deeper issues like hormonal imbalance or thyroid problems, which should always be diagnosed and treated by a physician. Since abdominal weight gain is slightly different in men and women due to hormones, we’ll focus on abdominal weight gain in women only in this post.
Addressing abdominal fat deposits in women involves a three-pronged approach: diet/nutrition and digestion, exercise, and underlying medical concerns (like hormonal imbalance) that must be addressed by a doctor.
There could be multiple reasons (including medication that we don’t address here) that could cause abdominal weight gain in women, but we’ll look at the simpler issues of diet, digestion, and exercise first:
Diet, Nutrition, and Digestion
Sometimes what we might consider abdominal fat is actually bloating and distension of our lower digestive system. This can be caused by a variety of different things, but the most common causes of bloating and the most easily addressed is nutrition choices and digestion.
Here are some things to consider when addressing abdominal bloating:
Potential problem: Sugar Alcohols
Foods containing sugar alcohols can cause abdominal bloating, diarrhea, and distention since they are difficult for our bodies to digest2
Tips to fix it: Avoid ingesting sugar alcohols and read labels to see if you are eating them unintentionally. Many sugar alcohols are added to some packaged foods to reduce the net carbs, so they are often common in “health foods”. Sugar alcohols include sorbitol, malitol, xylitol, erythritol, mannitol, lactitol, isomalt, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH). These can contribute to diarrhea and bloating, especially if you have IBS.
Potential problem: gas-forming foods
Some foods are naturally more gas producing than other foods. Cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.) and legumes (beans, peas, etc.) can cause gas and bloating due to an indigestible sugar called raffinose3. Gut bacteria feed on this undigested carbohydrate and produce methane gas, resulting in gas and abdominal bloating.
Tips to fix it: Moderate your consumption of cruciferous vegetables and legumes if you are prone to digestive problems. If you eat multiple servings of these foods each day, try cutting back a bit to see if this helps. If you choose to eat these foods, consider not eating them raw very often (in the case of cruciferous vegetables), or make sure they are cooked thoroughly and properly (in the case of beans) so they are easier to digest. Another option is to use a digestive supplement like Beano that helps with the breakdown of raffinose.
Potential problem: food allergies or intolerances
Abdominal bloating can sometimes be due to food allergies or food intolerances, and it can often look like belly fat due to abdominal distension.
Tips to fix it: Get allergy testing done at your doctor’s office or do a food elimination diet with food challenges4. Most allergy doctors will conduct allergy testing for plants, molds, and animals in addition to foods.
Potential problem: IBS
IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is a functional digestive disorder that presents with no physical damage to intestines but symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, or both.
Tips to fix it: Following a low-FODMAP diet has been clinically proven to reduce the symptoms of IBS5. FODMAP is an acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs), which is a group of carbohydrates that can be difficult to digest for people with IBS. Following a low-FODMAP diet can provide relief from symptoms of IBS such as bloating, gas, and distension6. Adequate probiotic intake can also be helpful in managing symptoms of IBS as well7
Potential problem: bacterial imbalances
Bacterial imbalances in the digestive system can cause digestive disturbances like bloating, diarrhea, and excess gas. SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) can be one cause of digestive distress in people with IBS and other disorders8 9.
Tips to fix it: Good quality probiotics and fermented foods are beneficial for many areas of health, including inflammation, inflammatory bowel disease, and IBS10. In some cases of SIBO, doctors may need to treat patients with an antibiotic and then probiotics to bring the intestinal flora back into balance. If you suspect you have SIBO, visit a gastroenterologist to get a diagnosis.
Not only is nutrition and digestion key for optimal health and addressing abdominal fat, but exercise is an essential component as well. We can’t spot reduce body fat, but we can make positive changes that result in body fat loss overall, which can lead to fat loss in the abdomen. The type of exercise we do is just as important as how much exercise we engage in on a regular basis. Here are a few things to consider:
Potential problem: chronic low-intensity cardio
If you’re doing the same low intensity cardio workouts all the time, your body will adapt to your workouts and the same workouts will produce little change after a while. There are mixed studies on the effectiveness of HIIT (high intensity interval training) on fat loss, but some studies suggest that HIIT training is effective in reducing abdominal, trunk, and visceral fat deposits11.
Tips to fix it: If you’re only doing slow, steady state cardio, consider increasing your intensity and adding some intervals to encourage healthy fat loss12 and to break through potential weight loss plateaus. However, depending on an individual’s fitness level, level of self-efficacy, and mood, HIIT workouts might not be the best good choice for adherence13, and could be replaced with MIIT (moderate intensity interval training).
Potential problem: neglecting strength training
Doing only cardiovascular training and neglecting strength training in your fitness routine may not result in as much fat loss. Often during weight loss efforts fat-free mass (muscle) is also lost, resulting in a lower RMR (resting metabolic rate) since muscle mass is a metabolically active tissue. Doing strength training exercises helps to maintain muscle mass during dieting14, and strength training exercises can improve body composition even in children15.
Tips to fix it: Incorporate strength training exercises into your regular workout routine. This can have a positive effect on body composition resulting in the loss of body fat weight and a preservation of fat free mass (muscle tissue)16. Strength training has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity17, so it’s beneficial in managing metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance syndrome)18.
The body is home to dozens of specific hormones (or chemical messengers) that regulate numerous body functions, including metabolism, appetite, satiety, and weight control. The body’s endocrine system is finely tuned, and when even one hormone is imbalanced, things in the body can be thrown off balance.
That being said, it’s important to rule out the simple things (like proper diet and exercise) before we blame hormones for stubborn weight loss. Sometimes addressing diet and exercise can even make a positive impact on hormones, so those changes should always come first.
Potential problem: uncontrolled stress
High levels of uncontrollable stress can cause a chronic increase in cortisol, which can cause weight gain in abdominal area and an increase in visceral fat19. Moderate amounts of stress and cortisol are a natural part of our lives and bodies, but too much stress without proper coping mechanisms can create health problems20.
Tips to fix it: If at all possible, find ways to remove yourself from overly stressful situations. If you cannot remove yourself from those situations, find ways to cope with those stresses in a productive way. Some ways to cope with stress include quiet time, meditation21, deep breathing22, exercise23, spending time outdoors24, and yoga25.
Potential problem: hormone imbalances
For women, weight gain in the abdominal area can indicate reproductive hormone imbalances26. Women are more prone to developing obesity in developing cultures than men mostly due to our fluctuating hormones during different stages in life27. Hormone imbalances can include too much or too little estrogen or progesterone, and polycystic ovaries, among others. Since female hormones are a very complex subject, we’ll just touch on polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and estrogen.
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): PCOS is an endocrine disorder resulting from ovaries that produce fluid filled follicles or cysts. The causes of PCOS are not known, but the symptoms include irregular or very long periods, excess hair growth, acne, and obesity. Obesity affects 80% of women with PCOS in the United States28, and the excess weight is often centered in the abdominal area. Early detection and treatment can reduce the likelihood of developing health complications like heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
- Tips to fix it: Seeing a doctor for diagnosis is imperative if you suspect you might have PCOS. Along with medications, lifestyle changes, weight management, and exercise can help to manage symptoms of PCOS29
- Estrogen Imbalances: Estrogen imbalances are often seen in postmenopausal women, but can happen at many stages in a woman’s life. Too much estrogen can cause water weight gain and abdominal bloating, while too little estrogen can cause constipation and resulting abdominal distention. Postmenopausal women go through metabolic changes that can cause an increase in weight30, which often tends to increase in the abdominal area.
- Tips to fix it: Visit with your doctor to check your reproductive hormone levels if you suspect your hormones are imbalanced. Sometimes even if the bloodwork comes back normal, there may still be a slight hormonal shift that can cause changes. Visit with your doctor about your health history and recent health changes to decide whether you need hormone replacement therapy.
Potential problem: thyroid hormone imbalances
The thyroid regulates our body’s metabolism and helps to determine your BMR (basal metabolic rate) among many other factors in the body. Thus, thyroid disorders such as hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) and hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) can often have an affect on body weight. People with hyperthyroidism usually have no trouble losing weight, but people with hypothyroidism tend to have difficulty losing weight. That said, the weight gain often associated with hypothyroidism is rather small (5-10 pounds depending on severity of hypothyroidism) and usually consists mostly of water and salt31.
Tips to fix it: Check with your doctor about getting your thyroid hormones assessed if you suspect you have thyroid problems or you have a family history of thyroid disorders or if you’ve had radiation treatments32. Once hypothyroidism is treated, a small amount of weight may be lost, but it’s not typical to see huge amounts of weight loss due to treatment of hypothyroidism²³.
Since there are so many different ways our bodies work and respond to our world around us, figuring out what is causing abdominal fat can be tricky. But if you approach the simpler things first (nutrition and exercise), and then address the more complicated issues later if the first set of changes don’t work, then you should be able to make progress!
Disclaimer: this blog post is for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease, nor is it intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other healthcare providers.
5 “A Diet Low in FODMAPs Reduces Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome” – Emma P. Halmos. Gastroenterology. 25 Sep. 2013.
6 “Low-FODMAP Diet for Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome “- Suma Magge, MD. Gastroenterology & Hepatology. Nov. 2012.
7 “Bacillus coagulans Significantly Improved Abdominal Pain and Bloating in Patients with IBS” – Larysa Hun, MD FAAP, et. al. Postgraduate Medicine. 13 Mar. 2015.
8 “Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth in Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis” – Alexander C. Ford, et. al. December 2009.
10“Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health“. – S. Parvez, et. al. Journal of Applied Microbiology. Accessed 18 Jan. 2017.
11“The Effect of High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise on Body Composition of Overweight young Males“. M. Heydari, et. al. Journal of Obesity. 2012.
12 “Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism“. – Angelo Tremblay, et. al. Metabolism. July 1994.
13 “Is high-intensity exercise better than moderate-intensity exercise for weight loss?“. – P. De Feo. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases. November 2013. Volume 23, Issue 11.
14 “Effects of strength or aerobic training on body composition, resting metabolic rate, and peak oxygen consumption in obese dieting subjects“. A. Geliebter, et. al. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1997.
15 “Effects of Strength Training on Body Composition and Bone Mineral Content in Children who are Obese“. – Clare Yu, C.W., et. al. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. August 2005.
17 “Dynamic Strength Training Improves Insulin Sensitivity without Altering Plasma Levels and Gene Expression of Adipokines in Subcutaneous Adipose Tissue in Obese Men“. – E. Klimcakova, et. al. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. December 2006.
18 “Resistance Training in the Treatment of the Metabolic Syndrome.” – Barbara Strasser, et. al. Sports Medicine. 2010.
19 “Stress-induced cortisol response and fat distribution in women“. – Moyer AE, et. al. Obesity a Research Journal. May 1994.
20 “Why We Gain Weight When We’re Stressed—And How Not To“. – Melanie Greenberg, PhD. Psychology Today. August 2013.
22 “Stress management techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health.” – Liza Varvogli, et. al. Health Science Journal.
23 “Exercise and stress management: Fit employees: Healthy Organizations?” – Valerie Sutherland, et. al. International Journal of Sport Psychology.
24 “Influence of an Outdoor Garden on Mood and Stress in Older Persons”. Rodiek, S. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, Volume XIII, 13-21. 2002.
25 “Stress Management: A Randomized Study of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Yoga“. – Jens Granath., et. al. Cognitive Behavior Therapy. January 2003.
27 “The Influence of Sex Hormones on Obesity across the Female Life Span”. – Jennifer C. Lovejoy. Journal of Women’s Health. April 2009.
28 “Scientific Statement on the Diagnostic Criteria,…of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome” – Daniel A. Dumesic, et. al. Endocrine Reviews. October 2015.
30“Menopause and Weight Gain – ADVANCE for NPs & PAs – AdvanceWeb.” – Katelyn DeMoura, CRNP. Advance Healthcare Network for NPs & PAs. November 2016.
Sarah Jane Parker is the founder, recipe creator, and photographer behind The Fit Cookie. She’s a food allergy mom and healthy living blogger based in Wyoming. Sarah is also an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, ACE Certified Health Coach, Revolution Running certified running coach, and an ACE Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist