Can’t lose belly fat?

So many of us have tried everything to get rid of it– serious dieting, doing hundreds of crunches a day, and spending hours in the gym. We may need to look deeper into what is contributing to us holding on to that stubborn belly fat.

Check out these 8 hidden causes of belly fat you never suspected!


 1)    Lack of sleep

Sleep is so important for our health. It is a time for our body to rest and repair. When we are sleep deprived for a prolonged period of time, we increase the inflammation in our bodies.

Five nights of sleep deprivation has been shown to increase pro-inflammatory markers, and these can remain elevated even after having 2 nights of recovery sleep.

Those sleeping less than or equal to 5 hours per night have also been shown to have an increase in their waist circumference compared to those sleeping at least 7 hours per night.1

In general, it is recommended that adults get in at least 7 hours of sleep per night.

2)    Insulin resistance

Insulin resistance is when the cells of the body are not effectively responding to insulin. The body is producing enough insulin but there is a malfunctioning at the insulin receptor site.

If the insulin receptors are not working properly, glucose cannot get into the cell. The body needs to get the glucose into the cell to be used for energy, and insulin must be able to bind to its receptor site to open up the doors for glucose to get into the cell.

With insulin resistance, there is a buildup of glucose in the blood. This excess glucose gets stored as fat, especially around the midsection.

3)    Hormonal imbalance

Abnormal hormone levels circulating in the blood have been shown to play a role in the development of obesity, especially abdominal obesity.2

Some women have estrogen dominance, which is a condition where there is an excess estrogen with little or no progesterone to balance this effect.

Excess estrogens can come from our diet (e.g., pesticides, growth hormones) or environment (e.g., plastics), and can contribute to weight gain.

Eating a healthy, whole foods based diet can help support the liver to clear out some of the excess estrogen.

4)    Stress/high cortisol

Those with abdominal obesity have been shown to have an increase in activity of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which is our stress response system.

Overactivation of this system can lead to “functional hypercortisolism,” which is an increased secretion of cortisol. Stress is one factor that can increase the activation of the HPA axis and increase the secretion of cortisol, which can lead to the development of abdominal fat.3

Also see How to lose belly fat naturally

5)    Alcohol

High alcohol intake is associated with abdominal obesity.4 Alcoholic beverages are high in calories and are also “empty calories,” meaning they supply energy but little nutritional value.

Alcohol can hinder weight loss because your body will use it as fuel first before burning fat for energy. Alcohol also tends to stimulate the appetite, which sets the stage for overeating.

8 hidden causes of belly fat you never suspected_2

6)    Gut dysbiosis

An imbalance of bacteria in the gut can impact the metabolic signaling pathways in the gut, which can affect inflammation, insulin resistance, and fat storage. Restoring the gut bacteria may help improve these conditions to assist with weight loss.5

7)    Too much sugar

Refined sugar can pack on the midsection fat. It is added to most processed and packaged items including so-called “healthy” items such as cereals, crackers, granola bars, and flavored yogurts.

In the year 1700, the average American consumed 7.5 pounds of sugar per year whereas today the average American consumes 150 pounds of sugar per year! Soft drinks in particular have been shown to increase waist circumference.

The greater the soft drink consumption, the higher the incidence of abdominal obesity.6 The consumption of sugar sweetened beverages has also been shown to be associated with higher concentrations of insulin and HOMA-IR, a measure for insulin resistance.7

8)    Diet sodas

You might have thought you were in the clear because you drink diet sodas instead of regular ones, but research is showing that diet drinks can actually contribute to an expanding waistline and health issues. An increase in waist circumference and fasting glucose levels have been linked with diet soda consumption.

Daily consumption of diet soda has been shown to increase the relative risk of metabolic syndrome by 36% and type 2 diabetes by 67% compared with non-consumption of diet sodas.8

Besides having a flatter tummy, why do we want less belly fat?

The fat around our midsection is called visceral fat. This type of fat is stored within the abdominal cavity, which houses several important organs including the liver, intestines, and pancreas.

Visceral fat is considered active fat that secretes inflammatory molecules into the circulation around these vital organs. An increase in visceral fat is associated with adverse metabolic and disease outcomes (e.g., heart disease, type 2 diabetes).

Taking a waist measurement is a simple way to determine where you stand with your visceral fat. Take the measurement at the narrow part of your waist, which should be at the top of your hipbone, just above the belly button.

For women, it is recommended that waist circumference be below 35 inches, and for men it should be below 40 inches to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

If you or anyone else you know is struggling to lose belly fat, share these 8 hidden causes with them to see what may be hindering their progress!


Park SE, Kim HM, Kim DH, et al. The association between sleep duration and general and abdominal obesity in Koreans: data from the Korean National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2001 and 2005. Obesity. April 2009;17(4):767-771.
Pasquali R, Vicennati V, Gambineri A. Adrenal and gonadal function in obesity. J Endocrinol Invest. 2002;25:893-898.
Pasquali R, Vicennati V. Activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in different obesity phenotypes. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000;24 Suppl 2:S47-9.
Riserus U, Ingelsson E. Alcohol intake, insulin resistance, and abdominal obesity in elderly men. Obesity. July 2007; 15(7): 1766-1773.
Ley R. Obesity and the human microbiome. Current Opinion in Gastroenterology. Jan 2010; 26(1):5-11.
Funtikova AN, Subirana I, Gomez SF, et al. Soft drink consumption is positively associated with increased waist circumference and 10-year incidence of abdominal obesity in Spanish adults. J Nutr. Feb 2015;145:328-334.
Lana A, Rodriguez-Artalejo F, Lopez-Garcia E. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is positively related to insulin resistance and higher plasma leptin concentrations in men and nonoverweight women. J Nutr. July 2014;144:1099-1105.
Nettleton JA, Lutsey PL, Wang Y, et al. Diet soda intake and risk of incident metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes in the multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis (MESA). Diabetes Care. April 2009;32 (4): 688-694.

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