Belly bulge: Causes and treatments


Weight gain is a simple explanation for a belly bulge, but there may be other causes. Some people carry a belly bulge for life while others notice growth over time.

In this article, we examine the different causes of belly bulge and their treatment or prevention. We also assess when to see a doctor.

Whether a person has a moderate weight or obesity, their body fat can distribute in several ways.

Subcutaneous fat makes up the majority of belly fat. This sits just below the skin, and is pinchable.

However, visceral fat is another type of belly fat that lies inside the abdominal cavity between the organs. Research suggests it has links with several diseases, including hypertension, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

While visceral body fat mechanisms are unknown, one study reports that genetics play a significant factor.

Weight gain is a serious problem in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 42.4% of U.S. adults had overweight in 2017–2018.

A small amount of belly fat is relatively harmless. However, the larger the bulge, the higher the chance of serious illness.

Several factors can cause a belly bulge.

Getting older

A person’s body composition changes as they age, which can lead to a belly bulge.

For females, the decrease in the hormone estrogen during menopause triggers an accumulation of body fat. Fat tissues produce estrogen, so more is produced after menopause to create a balance.

Levels of the hormone progesterone also decrease, which can lead to water weight gain and bloating.

The accumulation of belly fat is a natural result of these hormonal and metabolic changes.

For males and females, muscle tissue, muscle mass, and the capacity to burn calories decrease with age.

Therefore, if a person keeps consuming the same number of calories every day, fat naturally increases.

Stress

In the modern world, day-to-day stress majorly impacts on people’s health and well-being. It not only affects the body psychologically — it also interferes with its ability to function normally.

The American Institute of Stress report that 77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms of stress.

Possible physical side effects include unwanted belly fat. This relates to the stress hormone cortisol, which is created in the body’s adrenal glands. Cortisol affects fat storage around the lower abdomen, while its receptors are found deep within visceral fat.

This hormone provides a physical boost during exercise. However, it also induces acute stress. While working in the brain, it helps control mood and motivation.

Cortisol also manages how the body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It regulates blood pressure and can increase blood sugar levels. If a person is stressed, cortisol increases their need to consume sweet or comforting foods and drinks.

Research shows that chronically stressed individuals are more vulnerable to a high-fat, high-sugar diet.

Bloating

Also called distension, bloating occurs for many reasons. These include:

The feeling of pressure or swelling in the stomach from bloating should not usually be a cause for concern. It could relate to something a person has eaten. Therefore, it should pass relatively quickly.

However, if bloating continues for an extended period, people may consider speaking with a medical health professional.

Postpartum recovery

A belly bulge is natural in people during postpartum recovery in the weeks and months after giving birth. The uterus takes 6–8 weeks to return to its normal size.

A person with concerns about a belly bulge may consider consulting their doctor about an appropriate diet and exercise regime.

A belly bulge may also be a symptom of diastasis recti, a condition that affects pregnant and postpartum people. This is a separation of the rectus abdominis muscles, in which connective tissue weakens and stretches sideways. This leads to a forward bulge where the muscles separate.

Research shows that deep core stability exercises can help people reduce the effects of diastasis recti.

Alcohol

As with many things we consume, moderation is key, especially with alcohol.

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to a belly bulge due to increased calorie intake. An average beer has around 150 calories.

Alcohol also hinders fat burning because the liver prioritizes burning off alcohol.

Consuming too much alcohol also destroys liver tissue over the long term. When liver tissue is damaged in this way, new tissue grows in its place. However, the replacement tissue does not work as well. It does not produce the right enzymes and does not remove toxins and waste as a healthy liver does.

Food sensitivity or intolerance

A regular feeling of bloating or stomach swelling over a long period could be due to food intolerance.

Research shows that food intolerances may affect up to 20% of the population. Common food allergies and sensitivities include:

People can consult a medical professional for advice on food intolerance. They may refer them to a nutritionist who can recommend interventions, such as keeping a diet diary and using trial and error to eliminate the problem.

With so many triggers for belly bulge, the key is to identify individual triggers.

If apparent issues, such as food sensitivity or intolerance, cause the belly bulge, a person can directly address it.

Other basic treatments include the following:

Diet

Eating a healthful diet is crucial to losing weight.

People should cut out junk food and high sugar products, while concentrating on portion control. Eating a variety of healthful foods in small amounts is key.

Lean meats, eggs, and fish offer protein, while whole grains, potatoes, and fruit provide healthful carbohydrates. People can also consume fibrous vegetables, as these aid digestion.

Cutting down alcohol intake will also help reduce a belly bulge.

Exercise

People can combine regular exercise with a healthful diet for maximum impact.

A person who is starting from a sedentary lifestyle can take a few walks during the week.

However, people should discuss any new exercise regime with a healthcare professional first. This is especially important for someone returning to the gym after being away for a long time.

Other helpful steps include:

  • moving around at work
  • using a standing workstation
  • taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • walking or biking as much as possible

If strenuous exercise is too difficult, people can try gentle swimming, yoga, tai chi, or pilates.

Stay hydrated

People should aim to consume around 2 liters of water every day. Water helps with digestion and calorie burning.

Dehydration also leads to higher cortisol levels and additional stress. Keeping the body and mind in balance helps maintain a routine and good habits.

Sleep

A lack of sleep means the body cannot work efficiently, which could lead to additional weight gain.

As with exercise and diet, following a routine is important. People should aim to get eight hours of sleep every night.

As a person ages and their body changes, keeping weight off the belly becomes more and more difficult. However, a healthful routine of diet and exercise can often deliver results in a matter of months.

If a person has put on a significant amount of weight, they should immediately talk to a healthcare professional. The quicker the problem is assessed, the better.

It is important not to ignore a growing belly bulge. A healthy and functioning abdomen and stomach area are crucial to a person’s well-being.

To address a belly bulge, a person should exercise and eat a healthful diet They should also consider consulting a medical professional about any concerns.

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