Why we put on weight around the middle

Have you always carried what’s (not so) lovingly dubbed the ‘spare tyre’ or found you’re putting on weight in the middle later in life? Bupa Dietitian Gemma Cosgriff explains why the body tends to store fat around the tummy.

Our bodies are designed to support the key milestones in our life. Whether that be survival and protecting our organs, or increasing chances of success through childbirth. As a result where we store our fat reserves can change.

Let’s talk about fat. When we say fat, what we’re referring to is ‘adipose tissue’ (technical term, but a much nicer name). Adipose tissue is made up of adipose cells which actually hold onto our fuel reserves for when we’re using up energy to perform daily activities and exercise. It’s there for when we might not be getting regular fuel in (cue evolution discussion) and the body wants to make sure we can survive even without food intake at regular intervals. How clever is the human body?!

We have white adipose cells and brown ones. The white ones are primarily used as energy stores and the brown ones act mostly to use up energy to give off heat to help us keep warm and protect from the cold months of the year (cue reminder on colloquial term ‘winter weight’). 

Where fat is stored

Sure, there’s the whole DNA-thing - it’s real and our shape is heavily influenced by our genetic makeup. You might find that you’re someone who has always held a little extra weight around the middle, or you might be someone who has a little extra around the buttock area. When we talk about extra weight there is a combination of white and brown fat.

Our body might change over time, depending on our age and what we’re up to in life, but it’s important to remember there’s no one answer to why there might be a shift in weight towards the middle.

One example, and I’ll stereotype for a minute, is a woman from teens through to around 55-years-old may hold a little weight around the hips, backside and bust. Through childbearing and rearing, this is a human advantage, both for survival through childbearing, as well as supporting the physical needs of being a mum.

After menopause this weight might redistribute to the tummy area, and she might see some chicken-leg action. Why? Well menopause occurs after childbearing age and our body has said “hey, let’s protect those organs a bit better and not worry about the childbearing activity, as that’s pretty unlikely right now”. Cue the warming, protective factor of brown fat cells surrounding those precious organs.

Evolution is an amazing thing, and our bodies have learnt how to adapt to the needs of our age, how much fuel we provide it and how much we move around and work physically.

For men, weight in the middle is usually the body’s way of protecting the organs - combined with genetics.

All of this is not evidence-backed to the highest degree, but there’s some merit to the thought.

When to worry about belly fat

Too much weight around the middle or ‘visceral fat’ is the fat around our organs that puts us at risk of health complications and illness like heart attack or stroke. The best way to try to avoid it, is to work on preventing extra weight gain before the shift happens or trying to keep your weight down after shift has happened.

There is no magic way to ‘spot diet’ or lose weight from one area of the body. But the best way to keep weight off the middle is to focus on an eating a range of fresh vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, dairy, nuts and seeds, mono- and poly-unsaturated fats and good quality carbohydrates like whole grains. Regular exercise, including both aerobic and resistance work will keep the body functioning well and will have your energetic spirit on top of its game!

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