Have you ever walked into your closet and picked out your favourite jeans only to find that it no longer fits? Those jeans fit last week, but they’re more than a little tight today. You might wonder if it’s because of bloating or fat. Many people often confuse the terms bloating and belly fat. However, there is a significant difference between the two. Belly fat is often a result of unhealthy weight gain. When you gain weight, it spreads out over your belly, face, thighs, butt, and arms. In contrast, a condition in which the stomach swells and feels full and uncomfortable due to retention of fluid or gas. While bloating is temporary and typically resolves independently or with a slight change in diet and lifestyle, belly fat accumulates over time. As a result, it is difficult to get rid of, and it can lead to multiple health problems.
Both are risks to overall health and fitness if neglected for long. Belly fat directly leads to higher risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, hormonal issues and poor digestion. Bloating is temporary but if goes untreated it leads to constant discomfort and pain. – Hiral Patel (Nutritionist with HealthifyMe)
It’s crucial to distinguish between these two problems because they have entirely different causes and can indicate underlying health issues. The lack of awareness and information could lead you to take the wrong approach. While bloating is quite common after eating, it should not happen after every meal. If you find yourself bloated regularly, it’s time to visit a doctor.
The article focuses on differentiating the two and helping you understand the causes, prevention methods and underlying risks of belly fat and bloating.
What is Belly Fat?
Belly fat is excess abdominal fat gradually stored throughout the body via adipocytes (fat cells) as you consume more calories than you can burn off. If you’re gaining weight, you’ll notice it on other parts of your body as well, such as your back and thighs.
Fat accumulates over time, especially around the midsection, and sticks around longer. Instead of being tight like bloating, it feels soft and spongy. The most significant difference between bloating and belly fat is how it changes throughout the day. Fat never goes down, but bloating changes with meals and bowel movements.
What is Bloating?
Bloating is a feeling of fullness, tightness, pressure, or trapped gas in the abdomen. In other words, it’s when your stomach expands from gas build-up or water retention after eating certain foods. As per a clinical study, an interesting fact about these two conditions is that only about half of patients who complain of bloating actually experience abdominal distention. Hence, bloating is a temporary and unpleasant condition, often triggered by foods.
Specific foods are more difficult to digest. As a result, they keep you fuller for extended periods. High-fibre foods like beans, dairy products, overeating, too much salt, chewing gum, and swallowing air are the most common causes of bloating. You could also blame lactose intolerance (the inability to digest milk and milk products) as one of the causes of bloating.
Unlike excess fat and skin build-up, it is possible to get rid of belly-bloating with probiotics, fermented foods like kimchi, yoghurt, kombucha, kanji, peppermint oil, and herbal teas.
Differentiating Belly Fat and Bloating: An Easy Approach
How it feels
Bloating causes tightness in your stomach, whereas belly fat makes it feel spongy and malleable. In addition, belly fat easily gets physically grasped in your hand, something bloating does not allow you to do.
Observing your belly is one of the easiest ways to differentiate bloating from belly fat. Is the swelling localised? Or is it widespread in your entire body? If you answered yes to the first question, you are most likely experiencing bloating in the stomach and abdominal areas. However, you most likely carry extra fat if you notice bulges elsewhere, particularly in the abdomen, thighs, hips, and back.
Another distinct difference is the duration of your swelling. Fat cells accumulate over time and are likely to persist indefinitely. On the other hand, bloating occurs in spurts. It causes the shape of your stomach to change throughout the day.
Physical Discomfort or Pain
Excess fat does not cause any physical discomfort, but bloating can be painful after a while. On the other hand, excess abdominal fat causes long-term harm than temporary bloating.
Consider Your Cycle
Changes in female sex hormones, particularly oestrogen and progesterone, can cause significant water retention and bloating throughout the menstrual cycle. As a result, considering your menstrual cycle is essential to determining whether you are bloated or gaining belly fat.
What Kind of Belly Fat Do I have?
Now that you know whether you have belly fat or it is bloating, it is time to understand belly fat in detail. Since bloating is a short term effect of specific foods or gas, you can deal with it easier than belly fat. However, belly fat is a long term issue that leads to several health concerns. Hence, it is essential to pay immediate attention.
A majority of abdominal fat is the result of overall weight gain. It occurs when your body consumes more calories than it burns. Unlike stomach bloat, abdominal fat does not resolve until you make lifestyle modifications. Some people get belly fat from an existing medical condition and insufficient physical activity. However, for others, it can be from consuming too many calories.
The type of belly fat you accumulate has a varied impact on your health. However, there are two main types:
Visceral fat is fat that surrounds the liver and other abdominal organs. It is also called intra-abdominal fat that accounts for 10% of total body fat and gets hidden beneath the firm abdominal wall. Having excess visceral fat puts you at risk for chronic diseases like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.
The subcutaneous layer of fat is located just beneath the skin. Subcutaneous fat accounts for around 90% of total body fat in most people. This type of fat feels soft when you poke your tummy. It is also less hazardous to your health and acts as a layer of insulation to help you control your body temperature.
Causes of Belly Fat
Following a poor diet is one of the most significant reasons for weight gain. Similarly, it is a major cause of fat accumulation in the belly. For example, consuming more calories than you burn results in weight gain. Therefore, it leads to fat accumulation, especially in the belly region. Furthermore, sugar-sweetened beverages are the most significant contributors to weight gain due to their low cost, convenience, and easy availability.
Many people regularly consume more added sugar than they realise. Baked goods, flavoured yoghurts, breakfast cereals, granola and protein bars, pre-packaged foods, sugar-sweetened drinks (SSBs), and other processed foods are common foods high in added sugar. These foods negatively affect your body weight, leading to unhealthy weight gain. Besides these, sugary foods also slow a person’s metabolism and reduce your ability to burn fat.
Although sugar-sweetened foods and beverages are prominent causes of weight gain, other factors also affect your body weight. For example, low-protein, high-carb diets also affect weight. Protein helps a person feel fuller for longer, and people who do not include lean protein in their diet may eat more calories.
As per experts, fats, especially trans fats, can cause inflammation and lead to obesity. Many foods that we eat contain trans fats. For example, foods like fast food, baked foods like muffins etc., contain trans fats. Furthermore, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you should replace trans fats with healthy whole-grain foods, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Lack of Exercise and Physical Activity
As per investigations, physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle increase visceral and subcutaneous abdominal fat. Fortunately, frequent physical activity and avoiding continuous sitting throughout the day can reduce your risk of excess belly fat and help you lose weight. A straightforward mechanism to note is that you will accumulate fat if you eat more calories than you burn. A sedentary lifestyle that involves very little to no exercise makes it challenging to lose body fat, especially in the belly region.
The hectic lifestyles, work pressures and ongoing circumstances have increased stress levels among people worldwide. These stressors are primarily psychological stress and actions that enhance the likelihood of adverse health outcomes.
Chronic stress contributes to visceral fat accumulation and makes it hard to reduce weight since it can cause excessive cortisol production. Furthermore, high cortisol levels can cause some people to pick high-calorie foods for comfort, contributing to overeating and weight gain.
Research studies suggest that genetics and environmental factors are among some other factors that might lead to obesity. Experts believe that genes can influence behaviour, metabolism and the risk of developing obesity-related issues.
Menopause is another critical factor contributing to an increase in abdominal fat in women. One year following a woman’s final menstrual period, she enters menopause. Oestrogen levels decline considerably during this period. Though each woman’s experience with menopause is unique, in general, it causes fat to get stored in the belly rather than the hips and thighs.
Short sleep duration and obesity are common occurrences in today’s society. An extensive literature from cross-sectional and longitudinal epidemiological studies shows a relationship between short sleep and the prevalence of obesity and weight gain. In addition, a sudden increase in body weight leads to fat deposition in the abdomen and leads to belly fat.
Smoking and Alcohol Consumption
Smoking may not directly affect obesity, but it can indirectly lead to obesity. For example, a 2012 study shows that although obesity was the same between smokers and nonsmokers, smokers had more belly and visceral fat than nonsmokers.
A 2015 report on alcohol consumption and obesity shows that excess alcohol consumption causes men to gain weight, especially in their belly area. However, studies on women are inconsistent.
Getting Rid of Belly Fat: Effective Steps
People who have belly fat should strive to reduce a few pounds by correcting their diet and increasing physical activity. The most effective steps involve increasing your intake of fruits, vegetables, and lean protein while decreasing your intake of trans fat, refined carbs, sugar, and alcohol.
Make sure you obtain at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week. Furthermore, two days of weight exercise each week can aid in the reduction of abdominal fat. It’s important to remember that everyone’s weight gain and loss are different. So, talk to a healthcare expert or nutritionist about what will work best for you.
Furthermore, you should try to counter the causes of belly fat to cut down on it. Some of the most effective ways are:
Modify Your Eating Habits
Avoid Sugary Foods and Beverages
The most crucial part of making a dietary modification is avoiding any form of sugar in your meals. Hence, if you wish to cut on the belly fat, avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. Instead, you should drink healthy beverages like smoothies, buttermilk, green tea etc.
Consume Plenty of Soluble Fibre
Soluble fibre helps to keep you satiated for a longer duration. As a result, it curbs the urge to binge eat unhealthy snacks between meals. Therefore, it helps you consume fewer calories and prevent excess weight gain or fat accumulation. Furthermore, soluble fibres improve your digestion. A healthy digestive system and fewer calorie consumption are the key factors responsible for managing healthy body weight.
More Proteins and Fewer Carbohydrates
Proteins are essential for weight loss as they reduce the levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. In addition, proteins boost the appetite-reducing hormones GLP-1, peptide YY and cholecystokinin. As a result, proteins help cause an automatic reduction in calorie intake. Furthermore, proteins boost your metabolism and help burn more fats.
Studies suggest that an increase in dietary protein from 15% to 30% of energy at a constant carbohydrate intake produces a sustained decrease in ad libitum caloric intake. As a result, it leads to significant weight loss.
Drink Plenty of Water
Drinking plenty of water helps drive hunger away, breaks down fat, improves digestion, reduces liquid calorie intake and supports physical activity. In addition, it keeps you hydrated. So it is no surprise that drinking plenty of water impacts shedding fat from all body parts, including the belly.
Besides all these healthy eating strategies, a crucial strategy is to eat mindfully to avoid overeating.
Increase Exercise and Physical Activity
A sedentary lifestyle is one of the primary reasons for unhealthy weight gain. Hence, it is essential to indulge in exercise and physical activity to reduce body weight. At the same time, several exercises can help you cut down on belly fat. However, it is essential to consult a fitness expert to lose weight healthily.
Quit Smoking and Alcohol Consumption
Since smoking and alcohol consumption are associated with fat deposition and weight gain, it is best to refrain from smoking and alcohol consumption to reduce belly fat. Alcohol adds high empty calories, no nutrition and interferes with the body’s fat-burning mechanisms, which can lead to excess weight gain. So, if you are trying to lose weight and reduce belly fat, avoid alcohol consumption.
Besides the ways mentioned above to cut down on belly fat, several other factors can help. Some of them are:
- Get Adequate Sleep
- Reduce Stress
However, most of these steps are primarily helpful in losing weight; they impact your belly fat and help to cut down on it. Also, belly fat loss is not possible only through one of the aforementioned ways. A balanced diet, a healthy lifestyle, and enough physical activity are essential to cut down belly fat.
Medical Procedures to Reduce Belly Fat
In some cases, the belly fat can be rigid, and some factors prevent people from cutting down on it. As a result, it causes the threat of various diseases, including cardiovascular issues. In such cases, medical professionals recommend going for medical procedures.
Abdominal Wall Surgery
Abdominal wall surgery can improve the appearance of flabby, stretched-out abdominal (belly) muscles and skin. It’s also known as a tummy tuck. It might be as simple as a mini-tummy tuck or as complex as a full-body lift.
Liposuction is a body sculpting operation in which fat gets removed from a specific area. In some cases, patients can anticipate losing up to 70% of their fat in a treated area. Medical professionals also use a combination of belly tuck and liposuction in some cases.
CoolSculpting is a fat-targeting therapy to reduce undesirable fat. Patients can expect a 15% to 20% reduction in fat in the treated area after two to three months. CoolSculpting does not require any downtime. However, it does require a minimum of two treatments spread out over a month.
Before getting surgery, you should remember that it is not an appropriate procedure if you want to lose a massive amount of weight. The treatment aims to eliminate stubborn fat pockets that distort proportions and can’t get fixed with diet and exercise alone. However, surgeries come with many potential dangers, so you should talk to your doctor about different ways to lose weight before deciding on surgery.
Causes of Bloating
Bloating is usually caused by gas accumulation in the gastrointestinal tract. But there are other causes as well. The following are some common causes:
Eating high-fibre foods such as beans, dairy products, and other fruits and vegetables is a major cause of gas and bloating.
Chewing gum for an extended period can cause you to swallow air pockets, triggering bloating and abdominal pain.
When you have infrequent or ineffective bowel movements, stool stays in your colon for longer than it should. Thus, giving bacteria more time to ferment, resulting in bloating.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS)
Inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract in Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can trap gas and cause bloating.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
SIBO is an uncommon bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. It results in bloating and other digestive problems.
Other medical conditions
Bloating can be a side effect of a variety of medical conditions. The following conditions slower the food transit in the gut or change the microbiome from healthy bacteria to unhealthy gas-producing bacteria leading to severe bloating:
- Gluten sensitivity
- Parasitic infections
- Allergies to certain foods
- Ascites, causing retention of fluid in the stomach
- Bowel obstruction
- Lactose intolerance
Bloating can also be a side effect of certain medications or a symptom of a more critical health issue, such as a bacterial infection. In addition, you get bloated due to excessive water retention. Finally, a bad case of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or consuming too much salty/preserved foods can contribute to bloating.
Effective Ways to Manage Bloating
Following are some steps you can take to manage bloat at home:
- First, reduce your consumption of fibrous foods like beans, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, oats, carbonated drinks, and gum.
- Increase your intake of gut-healthy foods, which will help to strengthen your gut bacteria and aid in food digestion. For example, you can consume fermented or probiotic-containing foods like kefir, kanji, kimchi, yoghurt, kombucha, and tempeh. It is also advisable to consume at least one fermented food or probiotic per day.
- Eating smaller portions can help reduce the amount of air you swallow, which can cause stomach bloating. Putting your fork or spoon down between bites, remaining mindful, and avoiding multitasking while eating can also help reduce bloating.
- A short walk or some light stretching after a meal can also help gas pass through your digestive system, providing immediate relief.
- Herbal teas such as peppermint, ginger, cinnamon, lemon balm, and chamomile also provide relief.
- As per one study, abdominal massage can help with malignant ascites, a fluid build-up in the abdomen that causes bloating.
When Should You Consult a Doctor About Bloating?
Bloat can be more than just an inflated stomach. If you’re in a lot of pain or your bloat isn’t going away quickly, you should look into your symptoms. If you have any of the following symptoms, you should consult a doctor:
- Heartburn that is painful and frequent
- Loss of weight
- Abdominal discomfort
A visit to your doctor is also advised if you have not previously experienced severe bloating or if the bloating is interfering with your daily activities.
To find solutions to your bloating, you must first understand why it exists. Finding the differences between stomach bloat and abdominal fat might help you determine what’s causing your symptoms and how to cure them effectively.
Bloating is usually a transitory condition frequently caused by a dietary factor, a medical condition, or your lifestyle. All you need is a simple dietary modification. In contrast, abdominal fat results from a poor diet, a lack of activity, and medical issues. It’s also a long-term condition unless you take steps to reduce it. A healthy diet and active lifestyle can help people lose excess belly fat and lower the risk of its problems. So, identify the causes and take immediate actions to lead a healthy life.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q. How can I reduce my belly fat fast?
A. Just like gaining belly fat, losing it is also not an overnight task. Some of the best strategies to lose belly fat are lifestyle modifications such as adding soluble fibre, avoiding foods high in sugar and fat, and increasing physical activity.
Q. What causes belly fat the most?
A. The term “belly fat” refers to fat accumulation around the abdomen for various reasons. Poor diet, lack of exercise, and stress are all contributing factors. Improving one’s diet, increasing physical activity, and changing one’s lifestyle can all help.
Q. Why do I only have fat on my stomach?
A. Weight gain in your stomach can be due to specific lifestyle decisions that cause belly fat to be stored. For example, sugar, stress, and excess calorie consumption all contribute to the size of your belly. Moreover, it can also result from medical problems and hormonal changes.
Q. What is menopause belly?
A. Menopause causes changes in your body’s hormones, especially estrogen levels, which leads to weight gain around your midsection. As a result, you might notice a difference in your body form without gaining weight, or you may gain weight that appears to be concentrated around your belly.
Q. What is the normal belly size?
A. Men’s waists should be less than 37 inches around, and women’s waists should be less than 31 inches, though this can vary depending on race or ethnicity. If it’s larger than that, you should consult your doctor about your next steps, including losing weight.
Q. Are belly fat burners safe?
A. Over-the-counter fat burners are popular among patients who want a quick fix for belly fat and believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. However, fat burner pills might not be both safe and effective.
Q. Do belly fat burning creams work?
A. Belly Slimming creams typically contain ingredients that target fat receptors to prevent further fat storage. Once absorbed into the skin, it promotes fat burning and the prevention of new fat development. However, their usefulness and safety are debatable and must get discussed with a healthcare provider before use. Plus, they cannot replace the need for a balanced diet and regular exercise.
Q. Does belly fat cause back pain?
A. The pelvis and lower back lean forward due to excess abdominal fat. It causes back discomfort by creating a permanent and circular arch in the back. Persistent discomfort develops as back pain.