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Why Do We Gain Weight In Certain Areas of the Body?

October 21, 2015

The human body is such an anomaly. Some tall, some short, some lean, some muscular, some plump—all of our different shapes and sizes make us unique.

Some of us seem more prone to muffin tops, and for others, one too many beers goes straight to the belly—but why?

The short answer is this: Concentrated weight gain in certain areas is largely predicated on genetics. Some people are predisposed to be pear-shaped, while others may be built with a larger midsection, more like an apple. But age, sex, and hormones can also play a role in where pounds get packed.

Biologically, women have more subcutaneous fat—the kind you can pinch—than men. This type of fat is deposited into the arms, thighs, buttocks, and the abdomen. Before your roll your eyes at the unfairness of it all, there’s a biological reason that women carry more fat than men. Women tend to store the long chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA, the prime nutrient needed for fetal development, in their thighs and hips.

Men have more visceral fat, the kind that forms deep in the abdominal cavity and lives in the spaces between organs, where it produces inflammatory cytokines that can harm those organs. It can also contribute to a growth of a “pot belly”—ever notice that men seem more susceptible to gaining beer guts? This is why. (However, after menopause, women start to gain more visceral fat.)

While visceral fat is more dangerous, it’s easier to burn because of its proximity to the liver. Subcutaneous fat is tougher to shed—it’s nearly impossible to spot-reduce fat in general. The best thing to do is to try to tone up these areas with focused workouts. Losing fat overall will help problem areas shrink, so hitting the gym and paying attention to diet can make a huge difference.

There are some behavioral factors that contribute to gaining weight in specific areas as well. Excessive alcohol consumption forces the liver to spend its energy to burn alcohol instead of fat, so the calories in alcohol get stored in the belly as fat. As for the puffy  face that can result from constant binge drinking—dehydration, which causes water retention, is at play.

Going hard on the booze can also stress the body, and when the body is essentially under attack by substances such as tobacco and alcohol, cortisol levels spike. Chronically high cortisol can manifest as belly fat (the visceral kind). Stress can also come from a lack of sleep, which alcohol and tobacco can contribute to as well. And then there’s emotional stress, one of the biggest factors for high cortisol production. All of that affects hormone balance—and hormonal imbalances are also a culprit for weight gain because of hormones’ role in metabolic function. A vicious cycle, right?

While there isn’t much to be done about the genetic part, making healthier choices can help keep excess weight at bay. Drink plenty of water and try to consume alcohol responsibly. Maintaining a diet low in refined sugar and salt can also combat water retention. Another no-brainer: Exercise to help burn body fat and lower stress levels. And take it easy on your body and mind by trying yoga, meditation, or both.

But having a little meat on your bones isn’t necessarily a bad thing—in fact it can be a picture of health when coupled with making smart, conscious choices daily when it comes to food and physical activity. Rather than fixating on weight, focus on avoiding processed foods and a sedentary lifestyle and instead nourishing the body with nutritious whole foods and exercise you enjoy.

Illustration by Karley Koenig

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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