We’ve all seen the guy (or gal) at the liquor store with the gut that just can’t be contained. (Maybe you are that person.)
“That will never be me!”, we think to ourselves as we wind along the aisles in search of our favorite clear tequila. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Even if you prefer sticking with lite beers or low-calorie vodkas, in time, overconsumption of alcohol can lead to weight gain. And eventually, that weight gain is likely to accumulate right in the ole waistline.
Before I dove down the rabbit hole of alcoholism I was a thin size 2 and hovered around 130 pounds.
At the height of my drinking, I gained over thirty pounds in one year, most of which rested firmly in the midsection. Of course, alcohol isn’t the only bad health decision that led me there, but it played a central role.
My story isn’t unique. Millions of people experience weight gain caused by excessive alcohol consumption. And despite the name, beer bellies don’t rely solely on the consumption of beer.
All forms of alcohol are loaded with empty calories.
But we should also note that heavy drinking often goes hand-in-hand with other unhealthy lifestyle choices and habits that can contribute to weight gain.
Sunday mornings sacrificed to the hangover, laying around the house, and late-night fast food binges only make matters worse.
Let’s dive into exactly what a beer belly is, the different types of fat involved, how it affects different ages and genders, and a few steps you can take to tame the growing beast.
What Is A Beer Belly?
A beer belly is simply a buildup of fat in the midsection. It tends to be uncharacteristically large when compared to the relative frame of the person, but that’s not always the case.
There’s nothing inherently different about a beer belly and general fat in the belly caused by unhealthy eating choices. But a beer belly gets its name because its owners tend to drink a lot of beer. Though, as we’ve pointed out, all types of alcohol can contribute to the formation of a beer belly.
A beer belly is more than just an eyesore. It is actually linked to a variety of serious health problems. These are mostly the same health risks that are associated with severe obesity. They include:
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Heart Disease
- Fatty Liver Disease
Having a beer belly is linked to a higher mortality rate because of these health conditions and their associated risks.
There is a significant difference between gaining 30 pounds of lean muscle and 30 pounds of alcohol-induced belly fat. One of them can help you live longer while the other is just going to slow you down in more ways than one.
Beer Bellies and Different Types of Fat
The fat inside our bodies comes in two primary forms.
The first type of fat is known as subcutaneous fat. This is the jiggly fat that sits just beneath the skin. It’s by far the most common type of fat we gain and some studies suggest that small amounts can actually have health benefits. The keyword there is “small amounts”.
By the time you have achieved a formidable beer belly, you are well beyond this healthy milestone and are within the danger zone. Subcutaneous fat can be responsible for high blood pressure, heart disease, and even lead to stroke.
The second type of fat is called visceral fat. There is nothing cute or jiggly about visceral fat. It’s often referred to as “the dangerous fat” and for good reason. Visceral fat lives deeper within the body and wraps itself around our important organs. From the outside, a person may look thin and healthy, yet they can still have unhealthy amounts of visceral fat.
Risks of Visceral Fat
Visceral fat packs itself together very tightly and tends to accumulate much faster than it is burned away. It causes the firm abdominal wall to push outward.
Have you ever felt a beer belly and been surprised by how hard or firm it felt?
It’s not because they’re secretly muscular beneath their outer layer. It’s because they have an unusually large amount of visceral fat pushing out on the abdomen from the inside.
Visceral fat has some serious health risks associated with it, such as:
- Heart Disease: Visceral fat has been associated with higher levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and lower levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, contributing to the buildup of plaques in the arteries. This can lead to atherosclerosis, a condition characterized by the hardening and narrowing of the arteries, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
- Type 2 Diabetes: Visceral fat can release substances that interfere with the body’s ability to properly use insulin. Insulin resistance, where the body’s cells do not respond effectively to insulin, can develop. This means that glucose remains in the blood instead of being used as energy, leading to higher blood sugar levels and eventually to type 2 diabetes.
- Fatty Liver Disease: Visceral fat can also accumulate in the liver, causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This buildup of fat in the liver can lead to inflammation and scarring, known as cirrhosis, which hampers the liver’s ability to function properly. NAFLD is considered a serious condition as it can lead to liver cancer or liver failure in severe cases.
An unhealthy amount of subcutaneous fat almost always means that there is an unhealthy amount of visceral fat hidden deeper within. You may not yet be at the point where your beer belly is rock solid, but that time will eventually come if you don’t quit drinking.
Visceral fat can be roughly estimated using the circumference of your waist. Experts suggest that women with a circumference above 35 inches and men with a circumference above 40 inches are in the danger zone for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
What Causes A Beer Belly?
So what’s the secret ingredient in alcohol that eventually leads to the beer belly? It’s all about the calories. The same culprit is responsible for all forms of weight gain.
This is why combining the overindulgence of alcohol with the overindulgence of fast foods is a great way to speed up the process and earn yourself a beer belly in record time.
There are a few other elements in play that make heavy drinking more likely to result in a beer belly.
One of those elements is the liver.
Alcohol’s Sneaky Impact on Metabolism and Weight
The liver is an incredibly important organ tasked with filtering toxins and burning fat. Unfortunately, it’s not very good at doing both of these at the same time.
So when it has to choose between filtering alcohol (which it sees as a toxin) and burning fat, guess which of the two it chooses?
Imagine your metabolism as a well-orchestrated assembly line. Everything has its order. But when alcohol enters the scene, it’s like throwing a wrench in the works. Instead of efficiently burning calories from the food we’ve consumed, our bodies divert energy to processing the alcohol. And guess what happens to those unburned calories?
They get stored as fat.
Moreover, alcohol is deceptively calorie-rich.
A single gram of alcohol provides seven calories, which sneakily add up as you finish that third or fourth drink. Combine these “invisible” calories with the often high-calorie mixers and chasers, and you’ve got yourself a metabolic minefield that easily contributes to weight gain.
But the metabolism mischief doesn’t stop there. Alcohol often weakens our dietary resolve. After a couple of drinks, that late-night pizza or those greasy appetizers seem much more tempting. This increase in calorie intake, combined with alcohol’s metabolic meddling, sets the perfect stage for the dreaded weight gain.
Alcohol and Exercise:
Another element that contributes to the beer belly is our level of physical activity.
Have you ever tried to run on a treadmill at night when you’re drunk? I have. Once. It wasn’t fun. What about in the morning when you’re hungover? That’s not much better.
The fact is, the more we drink the less time we spend exercising. And if you reach a point of dawn-till-dusk drinking, then you’ve probably given up on the gym entirely.
Beer Belly Differences Between Men and Women
When it comes to weight gain, particularly in the abdominal area, there are indeed nuanced differences between the sexes, influenced by a mix of biological and hormonal factors.
Fat Storage and Distribution:
Both men and women store fat, but the patterns of distribution often differ.
Men often store excess weight in the abdominal region, which leads to the accumulation of visceral fat—fat surrounding the internal organs. This is what can give rise to the “beer belly.”
Women, on the other hand, predominantly store fat subcutaneously—just beneath the skin—especially around the hips, thighs, and buttocks. This fat storage pattern, governed by sex hormones like estrogen, supports childbearing and breastfeeding.
But it doesn’t mean we’re entirely off the hook, ladies. We get alcohol bellies, too!
Visceral Fat in Men and Women:
While men are generally more prone to visceral fat accumulation, it’s important to note that women are not immune to it.
Post-menopausal women, in particular, due to the reduction in estrogen levels, may begin to see a shift in fat storage from the thighs and hips to the abdominal region, increasing their risk of associated health issues.
Beyond the Beer Belly Stereotype:
The term “beer belly” is more frequently associated with men, but central obesity—a concentration of fat around the waist and abdomen—is a health concern for individuals of all genders. And honestly, one only has to look around to see its increasing prevalence.
Excessive tummy fat indicates a higher risk of certain health issues, from cardiovascular diseases to type 2 diabetes.
It’s crucial to remember that while “beer bellies” might be easier to see in men, central obesity can manifest differently in women but with the same potential health implications.
The Role of Age and Hormones:
As women approach and go through menopause, the drop in estrogen levels can lead to a more central distribution of fat.
On the flip side, men see a gradual reduction in testosterone as they age, which can also impact fat distribution.
However, it’s important to remember that none of this happens in a vacuum.
There are individual factors to consider as well like genetics, metabolism, and overall lifestyle -as they play pivotal roles in how and where each person stores fat.
College Beer Bellies
The body slows down its fat burning as we age and our caloric intake becomes lower. This makes it much easier to form a beer belly in our later years. Yet, if you take a look at some of the most well-known party schools out there you will likely see plenty of college students rocking the beer belly.
Why does this happen?
Combine that with incredibly poor food choices and this evens the playing field between the young and the old. The only advantage of college students is that they have more time and energy to change their lifestyle and burn the fat away.
Why Does Alcohol Cause Bloating?
You may have noticed the beginning steps of a beer belly after only one short drinking binge. Or maybe you’ve noticed it come and go with each wild weekend. This is most likely a form of bloating caused by alcohol. And while it certainly won’t make you look any more fit, it’s not exactly the same as a beer belly and tends to go away more promptly.
Alcohol is considered inflammatory. This means it irritates your body from the inside and leads to swelling. In particular, it can irritate your gastrointestinal tract and lead to bloating. Bloating can be pretty uncomfortable and will often lead to gas the following day.
How To Get Rid Of A Beer Belly
1. Quit drinking.
This is the tip that nobody wants to read but is bound to have the most significant impact if adhered to. Overconsumption of alcohol is the primary cause of the beer belly.
Think about each drink and how many calories it contains. How many calories have you burned that day? And how many calories have you consumed elsewhere?
And considering the inflammatory effects alcohol has throughout your body as well as its impact on your liver and metabolic functioning, think about how much improvement you’d experience if you gave it up.
2. Exercise more.
Exercise is one of the most important tools you have against beer bellies.
Engaging in cardiovascular activities torches calories, cutting down on visceral fat, while resistance training provides a dual benefit: it not only tones the abdomen but also ramps up the metabolic rate, allowing for increased calorie burn even during rest.
And it’s not all about the burn.
Exercise enhances insulin sensitivity, counteracting the negative effects of visceral fat on blood sugar levels. It’s also great for hormone regulation and stress reduction—two factors intricately tied to weight gain.
Honestly, I cannot overstate how important exercise is for helping you not only get rid of your beer belly but improving your overall health.
3. Eat a balanced diet.
Focus on a diet rich in whole foods such as lean proteins (chicken, turkey, fish), complex carbohydrates (quinoa, brown rice, oats), healthy fats (avocado, nuts, olive oil), and a healthy mix of fruits and vegetables. These nutrient-dense foods can help maintain a healthy weight and provide the necessary fuel for workouts.
4. Stay hydrated.
Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Hydration can help regulate appetite, improve digestion, and assist in flushing out toxins. It also aids in metabolic processes. Plus, considering how dehydrating alcohol is, your body likely needs it.
5. Limit sugar and processed food.
Consuming high amounts of sugar and refined carbs can lead to an accumulation of belly fat. Opt for natural sweeteners and limit foods with added sugars.
But here’s the thing.
Drinking alcohol leads to craving salty, fatty, greasy food. It’s really hard to avoid junk when you’re drunk, so managing your drinking is super important.
6. Manage stress.
Easier said than done, I know, but it’s important.
Chronic stress can lead to overeating and cravings for unhealthy foods, particularly those high in sugar and fat.
And do you know what increases your stress levels? Drinking alcohol.
This seems counterintuitive, right? After all, so many people drink as a means of alleviating stress. But that’s the insidious part about it.
Techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga can help manage and reduce stress, but you also need to watch your alcohol intake if you truly want to manage your stress levels.
Here’s an excellent clip from Andrew Huberman explaining the connection between alcohol and stress:
7. Prioritize Sleep:
A consistent sleep schedule and ensuring 7-9 hours of sleep nightly can aid weight loss. Lack of sleep can disrupt hormone balance, leading to weight gain, especially around the midsection.
8. Limit carbonated drinks:
Carbonated beverages can cause bloating, giving the appearance of a ‘beer belly’. Even sugar-free sodas can lead to a bloated stomach. If you notice you’re particularly sensitive to the effects of carbonation, try cutting them out to see if it helps.
9. Consume probiotics:
These beneficial bacteria, found in foods like yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables, can help improve gut health and digestion, reducing bloat and aiding in weight management.
You can also try probiotic supplements like these from Clear Wellness 360, which I’ve found particularly helpful for reducing bloating and improving my mood.
10. Limit salt intake:
High salt intake can lead to water retention, causing bloating. Avoid high-sodium processed foods and season meals with herbs and spices instead of excessive salt.
11. Stay active throughout your day:
Beyond structured workouts, find ways to incorporate more movement into daily routines. This could include taking stairs instead of elevators, walking or cycling to nearby places instead of driving, or setting reminders to stand and stretch every hour.
This is especially important if you work a desk job.
Invest in a good stand-up desk and walking treadmill. I purchased this one from Amazon during a Prime sale and honestly, hopping on this thing during my usual afternoon slump has made all the difference. It’s like a tiny caffeine jolt to the brain but without the crash.
Remember, while these steps can contribute to a reduction in visceral fat and the appearance of a beer belly, they should be part of a holistic approach to health and wellness. It’s essential to consult with healthcare or fitness professionals to tailor strategies that best fit individual needs and circumstances.
Curious about your drinking?
The following quiz is called the AUDIT, which is short for Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. It’s used by medical professionals to assess your risk for alcohol dependence. Curious about how your drinking habits stack up? Take the assessment.
This is not an official medical diagnosis nor is it medical advice. Rather this is for informational purposes only. If you have any questions or concerns, share your results with your doctor.