Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
December 8, 2023 ·  9 min read

3 Reasons Your Belly is Enlarged That May Not Be Related to Weight Gain

This article was originally published on May 9, 2017, and has since been updated.

At any given time of year, at least a few of the magazines on the shelves will have some article or headline dedicated to helping you finally achieve that oh-so-coveted flat stomach, six-pack abs, toned tummy, sexy midriff – whatever you want to call it.  For many of us, though, our mid-section doesn’t seem to change despite our efforts to eat right and exercise. This is because not all tummies are caused by a poor diet or a sedentary lifestyle. There are several reasons why our bodies seem to hold onto belly fat—understanding how the different kinds of belly fat and what causes them is the first step to achieving a leaner midsection.

2 Main Types of Belly Fat

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Our body stores fat in different ways. The distribution of this fat depends on a few factors, including hormones and how much fat we have in our bodies. It is important to understand the different kinds of fat and how we store and distribute it so we can tackle the root cause of belly fat and reduce it.

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1. Subcutaneous Fat

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Subcutaneous fat is the fat that is right under your skin. We need some of this fat, as it helps to protect us and keep us warm. That being said, too much is not a good thing. This can lead to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and more. On top of that, it can cause us mental and emotional distress due to societal beauty standards, as well as the lack of ability to participate in various activities. Now, where and how our subcutaneous fat is distributed in our bodies has much to do with genetics and hormones. Women, especially, will notice differences as they go through puberty, through their childbearing years, and then again as they go through menopause. (1)

2. Visceral Fat

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Visceral fat refers to the fat that sits around your internal organs. This is the more dangerous fat, as it can cause serious health problems. Again, a small amount is needed to protect your organs. Called “active fat,” visceral fat has an active role in the body’s functioning. Too much, however, puts you at high risk for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The only way to reduce visceral fat is through proper diet and exercise. (2)

3 Belly Types and Why You Don’t Have a Flat Tummy

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With the two types of fat mentioned above, the only way to reduce is through diet, exercise, and a proper sleep routine. You cannot spot reduce, so don’t fall for products, workouts, and anything that anyone is trying to sell you that “targets belly fat” – this is impossible and does not exist. Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, find an exercise routine that works for you, and ensure you sleep properly each night. This will help regulate your hormones, become fitter and leaner, and do wonders for your mental health. Likely, though it will take time, you will see a reduction in body fat all over your body, including your abdomen.

Sometimes, however, your “belly” isn’t caused by fat at all. Your inability to achieve a flat tummy despite reaching your body goals elsewhere could indicate a more serious health problem. If you have any of the symptoms listed here, consider talking to your doctor about them.

Read More: This Woman Got Rid of Her Bloated Belly By Changing These 6 Things

1. Bloating Throughout the Day

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A moment of truth here: Bloating sucks! It’s uncomfortable and completely covers up the fact that you have been doing all the right things to have the tummy you want. There are many reasons why we (especially women) get bloated, and it’s important to understand them so we know how to respond. (3)

  • Hormonal (PMS): Any woman with a uterus knows what this one is like. Bloating due to menstruation is an unfortunate fact of life for most pre-menopausal women, and it’s not one that you can do much about. Thankfully, it is not a sign of anything dangerous (if anything, it shows that your body is in working order). It is perfectly normal to experience some bloating or distention where your uterus is (lower abdomen) leading up to and the first couple of days of your period.  That being said, if you suffer from really difficult, painful PMS symptoms, this could be a sign of another health problem, such as PCOS or endometriosis – and there are solutions. Make sure to talk to your gynecologist if your PMS is particularly unbearable.
  • Digestive Issues: If you are constantly finding yourself bloated, especially after meals, even when you are not on your period, this could be a sign of digestive problems. This could be IBS, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, or food sensitivities. Certain digestive conditions can be determined from a blood test, however just because your test comes back negative does not mean you may not still have a problem. (4)
    Keep a journal where you track what you ate, when you ate it, and how you felt immediately after as well as a couple of hours later. This will help you to determine which food or foods are causing you difficulty. Consider trying the elimination diet with some of the most common food offenders (wheat, dairy, soy, nightshades, legumes, etc.). Consult a nutritionist for help if necessary.
  • Fluid Retention: Sometimes, a little belly bloat is actually caused by excess fluid retention around your middle. This could be edema or ascites and could be a sign of liver disease or certain cancers. Talk to your doctor immediately if you struggle with excess fluid retention.
  • Dehydration: Coupled with electrolyte imbalance, dehydration will slow your digestive system right down, which causes food to sit longer and cause gas and bloating. You may also experience fluid retention as your body overcompensates while trying to recover and rehydrate.
  • Constipation: Having stool in your intestine will give you a hard feeling of stomach, pain, gas, and bloating. Constant constipation is usually caused by a lack of fiber in the diet, not enough water and physical activity, and too much stress. Constipation could be a sign of something more serious, however, so if it persists despite making healthy lifestyle changes, talk to your doctor.
  • SIBO: Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth from abnormal bacteria in your GI tract will cause gas and bloating. When harmful bacteria take over your intestines, they damage your stomach and intestinal lining making it difficult to digest food and produce unwanted gas. Some foods can cause this, and there are some dietary changes you can make to repopulate your gut with good bacteria.
  • Bowel Obstruction: This could be caused by scar tissue or a tumor that grows and presses on your bowel. This blocked bowel will then retain fluid and stool, which not only causes bloating but also abnormal bowel movements and can be very painful. Bowel obstruction can be dangerous, so talk to your doctor immediately if you suspect this for yourself.
  • Cancer: Bloating can be a sign of colon cancer or uterine cancer. Check for other potential cancer markers and see your doctor right away.

2. Lower Belly “Pooch”

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This is normal for most women and doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong (it just means you have a uterus). However, if it is exaggerated, or changes over time, this could be a sign of uterine fibroids. If you also experience extremely heavy or long periods, pelvic pressure or pain, frequent urination, difficulty emptying your bladder, constipation, or back or leg pains, get checked by your doctor to take care of this problem. (5)

3. Post-Partum Tummy

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Congratulations! You had a baby, and guess what? Mummies have tummies. It is perfectly acceptable for any woman who has had children, recently or not, to have a little bit of a tummy. Pregnancy changes your hormones and your body, and that is normal. Of course, a proper diet and a healthy exercise routine can help to get rid of your post-baby belly. For moms wanting to start exercising, there are only a few rules you need to follow (6):

  • Wait: Vaginal births usually require a minimum of 6 weeks before continuing a normal exercise routine, and cesarean sections can take even longer. Your doctor can help you determine what timeframe is best for you.
  • Start slow: Gentle kegel and pelvic floor exercises are best in the weeks following delivery, and gentle walks will get you moving outside with your baby without causing stress on the body. Start with lower-impact cardio and work your way up in intensity. For strength training, start with body weight or light-weight exercises focusing on stability, control, and left and right side balance before going heavy again.
  • Use Free Resources: Take advantage of post-partum and other fitness videos on YouTube and elsewhere. There are plenty of exercise videos and classes geared towards moms in all post-baby stages!
  • Find Community: Try exercising with your baby (baby-weight squats!), and consider investing in a baby backpack, carrier, or a specific walking and jogging stroller. Participate in local mother-baby classes to help you work out with your baby and get to know other new moms in the area.

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How To Reduce Belly Fat

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As you can see, there are many reasons why you may have a belly that you are struggling to get rid of. As another reminder, no matter what anyone tells you, you can’t “spot reduce” belly fat. There are no magic pills, supplements, exercises, teas, or anything else that will zap your belly fat away. Rather, a concentration on the following will reduce body fat all over, including your belly:

  • A diet focused on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources, healthy fats, and high-fiber foods
  • A diet that does not include processed foods, “diet foods”, lots of alcohol, sugar, salt, and fat
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Regular exercise, which includes both cardiovascular training and strength training
  • Proper sleep, both in terms of quality and length of hours each night

If your belly is not caused by fat, but rather bloating, make sure to assess all of your symptoms. As already mentioned, a lack of a flat stomach isn’t always caused by excess belly fat. If you are even just a little concerned, consult your doctor to help you make sense of your symptoms and keep your health on the right track.

You Don’t Need A Flat Stomach to be Happy or Healthy

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Finally, if you don’t have a perfectly flat stomach, that’s okay. Despite what the media and the internet seem to push on women every day, your value and your beauty do not hinge on this one, unimportant standard of beauty. Focus on being fit and healthy not for aesthetics, but for you. A healthy lifestyle means more energy, better mental health, and more capacity to participate in everything that life has to offer. No, you don’t need to be “skinny” or have six-pack abs. Eating well and exercising means that you can play more with your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, dog – whoever. It means you can continue to do the things you love to do long into old age. It means that you can continue to try new things because your body is physically capable of doing them. If you are someone looking to lose weight, find your “why” outside of aesthetics and focus on that. It will bring you more joy, fulfillment, and success in your health journey than a goal weight, flat stomach, or any other aesthetic goal ever will.

Read More: 9 of The Best Foods and Drinks for Liver Health

Sources:

(1) https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/23968-subcutaneous-fat
(2) https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/24147-visceral-fat
(3) https://www.prevention.com/weight-loss/a43341310/bloating-vs-fat/
(4) https://www.healthline.com/health/bloating-vs-fat#bloat-treatment
(5) https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/uterine-fibroids#:~:text=Uterine%20fibroids%20are%20an%20extremely,your%20risk%20of%20developing%20fibroids.
(6) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4134098/