You love an occasional ice-cold beer or two … but is your penchant for brews to blame for the so-called “beer belly” you’ve started to develop?
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Excess abdominal fat can pose a danger to your health, though the term “beer belly” is a misnomer, as it’s not a byproduct of booze alone. Even sober folks can develop the type of extra abdominal fat that’s sometimes associated with drinking beer — but alcohol certainly doesn’t help.
Family medicine physician Daniel Allan, MD, explains what causes a beer belly, the risks it brings and how to work on getting rid of it.
There’s no evidence to show that drinking beer contributes specifically to weight gain around the abdomen area, aka the beer belly. But there’s plenty of evidence that beer and other types of alcohol play a role in weight gain in general — and you don’t have to be a heavy or frequent drinker for beer to lend itself to extra pounds.
Let’s take a look at what alcohol does to your belly (as well as the rest of your body).
“Consuming too many calories — whether from alcohol, sugary foods or just a lot of extra food — can lead to extra belly fat,” Dr. Allan says. And because an average can of beer runs you more than 150 calories, it doesn’t take long for the calories (and the belly) to build.
Alcohol also stimulates your appetite, which can lead you to eat more than you might otherwise — and it can impair your judgment, leading you to make less healthy food choices. (Hello, late-night fast food after hitting the bars.)
Alcohol gets in the way of your body’s ability to burn fat. Your liver plays an important role in metabolizing proteins, carbohydrates and fats so your body can use them — but if given the choice, your liver would rather burn off alcohol than fat.
“Your liver will preferentially burn alcohol instead of fat when it is consumed,” Dr. Allan explains, “so beer can interfere with fat burn.”
Your genes play a role in so much of your health. In the case of beer bellies, Dr. Allan says that your sex assigned at birth may be the biggest genetic factor in where your body stores fat.
“In general, women tend to store fat in their arms, thighs and buttocks, as well as their bellies, while men tend to store more in their bellies alone,” he clarifies. (Of course, this isn’t true for everyone, and your experience may vary.)
He adds: “Women tend to start out with smaller bellies, but all of us become more likely to store fat in our midsections as we age and our hormone levels decrease.”
Having extra weight around your midsection — sometimes also known as a “spare tire” — is linked with an increased risk for a variety of health problems, including:
“A person with a very firm beer belly is at even higher risk for health problems because it’s typically caused by a high accumulation of visceral fat,” Dr. Allan warns. “This fat is located in the organs themselves and between the organs inside your abdomen.”
Visceral fat is tightly packed, and as it builds up, it pushes the abdominal wall outward, exaggerating the appearance of a beer belly. The abdominal wall itself is made of muscle and tough fibrous tissues, which makes it very firm. That leads to a belly that feels hard.
For women and people assigned female at birth, a waist circumference of 35 inches indicates increased risk; for men and people assigned male at birth, it’s 40 inches.
This isn’t what you want to hear, we know, but here it is: “There is no magic formula,” Dr. Allan says. “Losing weight requires consistent attention to a balanced diet and appropriate portions, combined with regular physical activity.”
But there are some specific steps you can take:
Here’s some good news: “Visceral fat can be broken down quicker than other types of body fat,” Dr. Allan says. That means that when the weight does start to come off, you’ll notice it disappearing from your midsection first.
Your frame isn’t the only part of you that will benefit from cutting back on booze. Alcohol also affects your brain, heart and liver, and it can increase your risk of certain cancers.
As you put in the hard work to tackle your ”beer belly,” just know that the rest of your body will appreciate it, too!