The Science of Beer Bellies

It's the one bulge no man wants. Here's everything you need to know.

November 22, 2023 6:08 am
A graphic of beer and sandwiches on a red table.
Beer contributes to visceral fat stores on its own...but sandwiches play a role, too.
Jim Heimann Collection

Most people don’t love being teased about an insecurity on their body. When that insecurity has a silly nickname, it’s even worse. And yet, a beer belly (one of the few such phrases left in the wake of the body positivity movement) remains a socially and even scientifically acceptable way to describe protruding belly fat, or visceral fat.

Though some drinkers have claimed that the beer belly is a myth (tell that to my family), others flex about having them while maintaining abs. Then there are those who lament growing them without drinking any alcohol.

Ultimately, experts agree that abdominal obesity (the more clinical/less adorable term for a beer belly) increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, erectile dysfunction and other issues. Particularly for men with a waist size over 37 inches, and especially above 40 inches, a spare tire isn’t a punchline, but a warning sign.

Women can get beer bellies as well, and I have the pictures from college to prove it. Still, research shows that “males are more likely to gobble and accumulate abdominal visceral fat than females.” This raises a lot of important questions beyond “scientists are using the word gobble?” Whether you’re concerned about your stomach expanding over time or are already toeing the 37-inch line, a lot of the information about beer bellies might come as a gut punch. We answer your burning beer belly questions, below.

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What Exactly Is Abdominal Obesity?

There are three main types of body fat: essential fat (fat that you need to stay healthy), subcutaneous fat (the squishy fat a rude relative can pinch) and visceral fat (fat that seems inexplicably hard). Much like drugs, the consensus with fat is that it’s the hard stuff you have to worry about. This fat is found around a person’s midsection. 

However, visceral fat itself isn’t actually harder — “Because it’s underneath the abdominal musculature it can seem [that way],” explains Michael D. Jensen, M.D., who studies fatty tissues for the Mayo Clinic.

While it is possible to have a beer belly and a six-pack at the same time, it’s “very rare.” The reason you can have both present is also what makes visceral fat so harmful — it’s located deep in the body below your muscles, and more importantly, near your stomach, liver and intestines. A small amount of visceral fat is natural and needed to protect these organs, but too much can cause the body to malfunction. 

Can You Get a Beer Belly Without Drinking?

Part of the reason why some people believe that beer bellies are a myth is because you don’t have to drink a drop of booze to get one, which is true, Jensen says.

“The reason for the alcohol connection isn’t clear. However, men can get beer bellies even if they don’t drink alcohol,” he explains. Other studies further confirmed that moderate beer consumption was not related to abdominal obesity, but heavy consumption was. Overall, beer bellies are mostly caused by too many calories and not enough exercise, and other lifestyle factors like stress, sleep, smoking and drinking. 

One possible explanation for the oft-assumed link between visceral fat and alcohol is that beer is high in calories (which is true). But it’s also because the body thinks alcohol is a toxin; the liver metabolizes alcohol before handling the fat, which can build up as a result. So drinking may not cause every beer belly that is out there, but any alcohol can make problems with visceral fat that much worse. 

Why Are Men More at Risk for Beer Bellies?

Men tend to be at an increased risk for beer bellies because they have larger abdominal fat cells than women. More specifically, when men gain weight, male sex hormones like testosterone cause extra fat to be carried in the “intra-abdominal cavity and abdominal subcutaneous region,” Jensen notes…creating kind of a reverse Popeye situation where your gut grows instead of your arms. On the other hand, “women can store extra fat in the extremities.” So while men carry a disproportionate amount of spare tires around, women have their own crosses to bear: beer arms. 

Can a Beer Belly Mess With Your Head?

Beer bellies can cause a number of gastrointestinal problems, such as acid reflux and increased inflammation. In theory, this could lead to mental health issues, along with physical health ones, because of what scientists refer to as the gut-brain axis, or gut-brain connection. Essentially, the gut synthesizes neurotransmitters, including about 95 percent of serotonin and 50 percent of dopamine. 

Simply put, when your stomach is jammed up with visceral fat, it may not be set up to produce these chemicals properly. As researchers continue to cover the many intricacies of the gut-brain axis, several studies have demonstrated a correlation between irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, with mental disorders like depression and anxiety. And you guessed it — beer bellies have also been linked with an inflated risk of IBS, especially cases involving more diarrhea than constipation. (But hey, at least you won’t be constipated?)

That said, the most obvious way abdominal obesity can mess with your head is by messing with your sleep, Jensen warns. Additional data indicates that visceral belly fat was linked with worse sleep quality, but he suspects that this is not only because sleep deprivation can produce stress hormones like cortisol which leads to junk food cravings. “It could be the other way around,” Jensen points out, and the extra fat from overconsumption makes it less comfortable to sleep. Either way, neither possibility is going to put you in a better mood when you’re not sleeping properly. 

What the Hell Do You Do About It?

As much as the explanation for what causes a beer belly is irritatingly simple (too many calories and too little exercise), the advice for what to do about it is equally curt: consume less and move more. The surprisingly good news is that arduous ab workouts are not worth wasting your time on, and won’t help because, again, this fat lives below the muscle. 

Once you figure out a healthy eating diet, which may or may not include a beer here and there — plus an exercise routine that works for you — visceral fat is easier to lose than other body fat. “If you lose weight you will lose the beer belly first,” Jensen says, and by maintaining health habits from there, you’ll likely keep the visceral fat off and be able to enjoy a cold one … without having a belly to balance it on. 

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