Medical Services | Health Information | Appointments | Education and Research | Jobs | About

Belly fat in men: What you need to know

Learn why belly fat is unhealthy — and what you can do to lose the extra pounds.

Photo of Michael Jensen, M.D.
Michael Jensen, M.D.

If you are carrying a few extra pounds — whether in the form of belly fat, love handles, a beer gut or potbelly — you're not alone. In recent years, the number of people who are overweight has increased dramatically worldwide. Two-thirds of American men are overweight or obese. But this is one case where following the crowd is not the best idea, because extra weight — especially belly fat — can be downright risky. And while women often put on extra pounds in the hips, thighs and legs, men are much more likely to gain belly fat.

Michael Jensen, M.D., an endocrinology specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., answers common questions regarding belly fat and what you can do about it.

Why is losing belly fat important?

Although the link between belly fat and health is not entirely clear, experts do know that people with a lot of belly fat are at higher risk of health problems than are people who accumulate fat in other areas — and men are more likely than women to put on weight around the waist.

Our bodies are designed to store fat for release during times when there is not enough food. But when we put on weight and never have these lean times, fat cells begin to release fat molecules into the blood at a higher rate. This affects normal metabolism and the way the body uses insulin. These metabolic changes can worsen or increase your risk of health problems, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Some types of cancers
  • High blood pressure
  • Sleep apnea
  • Abnormal lipids — high triglycerides and low HDL ("good" cholesterol)
  • Insulin resistance
  • Metabolic syndrome

When you lose fat through exercise and improved eating habits, you improve your metabolism. This reduces your risk of health problems — and may improve existing health problems.

How can you tell if you have too much belly fat?

Not surprisingly, how big around you are at the waist is a good indicator of whether you have too much belly fat. Although measurements that compare your hip and waist circumference (waist-to-hip ratio) or compare your height and weight (body mass index) are more precise and can be useful for research, your waist size alone can give you a pretty good idea of how much belly fat you have.

For most men, the risk factors for heart disease and other diseases increase with a waist size over 40 inches (102 centimeters).

To accurately measure your waist:

  • Place a tape measure around your bare abdomen just above your hipbone.
  • The tape measure should be snug — but not so tight it pushes into your skin.
  • Check to make sure the tape measure is level all the way around.
  • Relax, and measure your waist after you breathe out — no sucking in your belly!

What role does exercise play in losing belly fat?

To lose weight — and keep it off — you have to get regular exercise. This means doing something active most days of the week. Most people need at least 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise to stay healthy. But to shed the pounds in the first place, you may need longer periods of activity.

Aerobic exercise such as bicycling, swimming or strenuous yardwork — the kind of exercise that gets you breathing hard and gets your heart rate up — is the best kind of exercise to burn fat.

One great way to get regular aerobic exercise is to walk. Using a pedometer, a simple device that measures how many steps you take, can help you make sure you're getting enough activity. For many men, walking 10,000 steps a day — plus eating right — is enough to stay at a healthy weight. Men with more weight to lose may need to walk farther. You may need to slowly build up the amount of exercise you get. Once you get the weight off, you may not need to do as much exercise to keep it off. But the more weight you lose, the more activity you'll need to keep the pounds from coming back.

Can you reduce belly fat with sit-ups?

Sit-ups will make your abdominal muscles stronger, sure. And, you may look thinner by building your abdominal muscles because you can hold in your belly fat better. But strengthening your stomach muscles alone will not specifically reduce belly fat.

There are no particular "spot" exercises that are best at reducing belly fat. But most people do lose belly fat before losing fat in other parts of their body when they get more exercise of any kind.

Does age play a role in gaining belly fat?

Men tend to put on more belly fat as they get older. While some men struggle with their weight their whole life, a lot of men start to notice their increasing waistline in their 30s — and gradually put on pounds as the years go by. For many men, the eating and exercise habits that kept them thin in their youth are just not enough to keep the weight off as they get older. The solution? As you get older, you have to change the way you eat and how active you are to stay slim or lose weight.

Is belly fat inherited?

While some men are more likely to put on extra pounds because of their genes, for the vast majority of men, the problem has a lot more to do with lifestyle than inherited traits. Simply put, when you take in more calories than you burn — the excess calories are stored as fat.

We've had a huge change in our environment. Men — and women — used to have much more active lifestyles. But our lifestyles today allow us to live and work with virtually no opportunity for physical activity. About 60 percent of American adults get no vigorous exercise in their leisure time at all. We are also eating larger amounts of high-calorie foods than we used to, such as "fast food" that is high in fat and carbohydrates. People are responding to this change in the way you'd expect — by gaining weight. Men need to be more active — to get out and keep moving.

What role does diet play in losing belly fat?

Diet plays an important part in losing weight. Getting more exercise is important, but it is really tough to get enough physical activity to lose belly fat without changing your eating habits.

To lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you consume. This means you need to avoid eating too much food high in fat and carbohydrates, and eat smaller quantities.

Can you really get a beer belly from drinking?

We do know that there is a link between drinking excess alcohol and gaining belly fat — the "beer belly." However, it isn't just beer that can increase belly fat. Drinking too much of any kind of alcohol can have that effect. We know that alcohol is high in calories and increases appetite, but still aren't exactly sure why drinking too much causes increased belly fat in particular.

If you drink, the key is to drink in moderation. While increased belly fat is most noticeable in people who drink to excess, keeping it to less than two drinks a day will reduce the amount of calories you consume and help you avoid putting on belly fat. It is also better for your overall health.

What's the secret to losing belly fat?

There's no secret, no one best approach for losing belly fat. More activity and eating less are key. The good news is that while there's no easy trick or shortcut, with more exercise and fewer calories, belly fat is the first kind of fat to go.

The only tried-and-true method to lose fat of any kind is:

  • Reduce the amount of calories you take in. You can do this by eating smaller amounts of food, or stick to foods that have fewer calories.
  • Burn fat by making physical activity part of your daily routine.

An important part of staying healthy is not only losing weight, but also keeping it off — this means after you lose weight, you still need to watch what — and how much — you eat and get regular exercise. However, it takes more effort to lose weight in the first place than it does to keep it off.

Don't despair, you can lose the spare tire — it just takes patience and effort. And once you shed even a few extra pounds, you'll feel better and lower your risk of health problems.

ARTICLE TOOLS

Print
E-mail this
Larger type
Reprints and permissions icon Reprints and permissions

MEN'S HEALTH


Mar 23, 2008