As men get older, their six-pack abs may gradually merge into a round keg. The large stomach many men develop with age has earned the title beer belly, beer gut, and brew belly due to its shape and men’s tendency to get too many of their calories from alcohol. While these nicknames may be humorous, excess belly fat can have serious negative consequences on men’s health if not appropriately addressed.
What Causes Beer Belly?
Despite the name “beer belly,” beer is not the sole cause of abdominal fat buildup — it’s usually a combination of unhealthy habits. From a poor diet and excess calories to a lack of exercise and hormonal changes, many variables affect stomach size. Though it’s not always the culprit, alcohol can also affect fat storage.
Does Beer Cause Beer Belly?
While alcohol can play a role in excess belly fat, other lifestyle choices contribute to additional body fat even more. In general, it is too many calories that cause the waistline to expand, not calories from a specific source such as beer. Whether they come from alcohol, sugary drinks, fried foods, desserts, or oversized portions, any type of calories has the potential to increase belly fat.
Although alcohol is not the only culprit, there is good reasoning behind the association between beer and belly fat. Alcohol has earned its reputation as a contributor to stomach fat because when alcohol is consumed, the liver works to burn off the alcohol instead of fat. While the liver is busy burning off the empty alcohol calories, fat can more easily accumulate in the midsection.
It is also easy to overdo calories when drinking beer or another alcoholic beverage. When sipping on a liquid, it can be challenging to keep track of or limit calories because the beverages go down smoothly. Especially for those who can drink a considerable number of beers in one sitting, the calories from alcohol can add up quickly.
Of course, drinking beer usually includes eating some unhealthy foods with it. Most often, alcohol is consumed at a bar or a party, both of which tend to serve foods like pizza, wings, burgers, onion rings, or other fried foods. Additionally, alcohol can increase your appetite, causing you to consume more unnecessary calories.
Age also has a large impact on stomach size. As people get older, their beer bellies typically become more prominent because they are less active and have decreased calorie needs. This lack of exercise and core strengthening mixed with a high-caloric diet makes gaining weight easier. Additionally, hormone levels decline in both men and women as they age, making them more likely to store excess fat in the stomach area.
As men get older, their abdominal muscles start to weaken and lose mass, which causes their intestines and other organs to push outward. Because men have a large omentum — the protective layer of fat wrapped around the intestines — they tend to gain weight more rapidly in their midsection than anywhere else. Weak abdominal muscles combined with extra mass within the abdomen pushing outward results in the rotund beer belly look for men.
Why Are Men More Likely to Gain Belly Fat?
Although research shows women can be healthy with a body fat percentage within the 20%-25% range and men should aim for less than 15% body fat, the way that fat is stored varies between the sexes. The reason men are more inclined to put on weight in their midsection comes down to genetics.
While girls and boys begin with similar fat storage patterns, these similarities change during puberty. Women tend to have more fat overall than men because they have a higher concentration of the hormone estrogen, which prompts the body to store fat. Women also have more subcutaneous fat — the type of fat directly under the skin — than men, which means they have different trouble areas for storing fat.
Women’s extra subcutaneous fat is usually deposited in the thighs, buttocks, and arms, as well as the belly. Alternatively, men tend to store most of their extra fat calories in their abdomen because they have less subcutaneous fat. Because of these fat storage differences; men typically have more trouble getting rid of fat in the upper body.
The type of fat men accumulate in their midsection is known as visceral fat, which is the fat that encompasses the abdomen’s internal organs and can push them outward. Visceral fat responds better to a healthy diet than exercise, which is why drinking alcohol and consuming too many calories are the main causes of a beer belly.
The subcutaneous fat women store is more diet-resistant and responds better to exercise. Although extra subcutaneous fat can be more difficult to shed, it comes with fewer health issues and can even be a sign of strong metabolic health.
Why Is Upper Belly Fat Firm?
Understanding a hard beer belly starts with gaining a better understanding of visceral fat. While subcutaneous fat is soft and feels squishy when you poke it, visceral fat is firm and does not give way as easily when poked. Visceral fat accounts for only 10% of the body’s fat content, but it is a key component of weight management and overall health.
Visceral fat is found in the stomach’s spaces surrounding organs such as the intestines and liver. This type of fat is stored within the omentum, which is an apron-shaped flap of tissue that blankets the intestines underneath the stomach muscles. As the omentum starts to fill with fat, it gets increasingly thicker and harder.
Subcutaneous fat is situated between the abdomen’s outer wall and the skin, making a buildup of subcutaneous fat more apparent. Because visceral fat is located deeper within the abdomen and not as easy to see or touch as subcutaneous fat, spotting an increase in visceral fat can be tricky. The simplest way to keep tabs on your visceral fat level is to use a tape measure.
To measure your visceral fat, measure your waistline by staying level with the navel as opposed to the narrowest portion of the torso. The bottom of your tape measure should be level with the top of your right hip bone, right where the hip bone lines up with the center of the armpit. Make sure you measure in the same place each time you check your visceral fat measurement.
While taking the measurement, be careful not to compress the stomach area or suck in your gut, which can result in a less accurate number. In general, 40 inches is the healthy diameter threshold for men, and anything above that measurement is regarded as excess visceral fat. However, this number may not be representative of all body shapes. Instead of focusing on a certain number, keep track of whether your waist is growing overall to get a better idea of whether you’re reaching an unhealthy level of visceral fat.
Health Issues Associated With Excess Belly Fat
Because visceral fat wraps around organs, too much of this tough fat can raise major health concerns. Namely, excess belly fat and poor visceral health can result in metabolic syndrome, which comes with a wide range of health complications. “Metabolic” refers to the various biochemical processes necessary for keeping the body functioning normally, making metabolic syndrome the general name for a group of risk factors that increase the risk of developing multiple diseases.
The greater the number of metabolic risk factors someone has, the more at risk they are for incurring a serious health issue. While numerous traits, conditions, and habits can contribute to metabolic syndrome, there are five main risk factors for the condition. Anyone with three of the following metabolic risk factors may be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome:
- A larger waistline: Also referred to as abdominal obesity, those with excess stomach fat, such as a beer belly, have higher chances of developing heart disease than those with body fat in other areas.
- A low HDL cholesterol level: Because HDL cholesterol helps to remove cholesterol from the arteries, a low level of this beneficial type of cholesterol can raise the risk of heart disease.
- High blood pressure: Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the artery walls, and it can damage the heart or cause plaque buildup if it gets too high.
- A high triglyceride level: Triglycerides refer to a specific type of fat found in the blood that can be detrimental to heart health at high levels.
- High fasting blood sugar: Elevated blood sugar levels can be an early sign of diabetes.
Those who meet the qualifications for metabolic syndrome may encounter the following health complications:
- Heart disease: In coronary heart disease, a waxy substance known as plaque builds up inside the arteries responsible for supplying blood to the heart. Too much plaque can harden and narrow the arteries, restricting the amount of blood flowing to the heart and causing heart damage. Smokers are especially at risk of developing heart disease.
- Heart attack: The reduced blood flow to the heart due to a buildup of plaque can also cause chest pain or a heart attack.
- Hypertension: Hypertension is the result of high blood pressure putting too much stress on the heart’s arteries. A blood pressure of 130/85 mmHg or higher qualifies as a metabolic risk factor.
- Stroke: A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked. This blockage could stem from poor visceral health and arteries damaged from plaque buildup.
- Type 2 diabetes: Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes, and 85% of people with type 2 diabetes have metabolic syndrome along with it. Those with both type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome are at a much higher risk of developing heart disease.
Although most metabolic risk factors do not have obvious signs or symptoms, a large waistline is a visible warning to be aware of metabolic syndrome risks. To avoid the diseases that accompany metabolic syndrome or to catch and treat them early, try to monitor visceral fat levels closely and focus on losing belly fat.