Although fat can be found in almost any part of your body, the kind that attaches itself to your middle can be the toughest to shed. And, unfortunately, as women age, the midsection increasingly becomes fat’s destination of choice.
“When a woman reaches her 40s, excess fat is likely to accumulate around the abdomen,” says Steven R. Smith, M.D., an obesity expert at Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes in Orlando, Florida. “This belly fat is often just a redistribution of fat to the abdomen rather than a gain in total fat.” So even a totally average-sized woman may be chagrined to discover that, as her estrogen levels decline during perimenopause, it’s a struggle bus to lose belly fat.
“By losing estrogen, you lose some of the normal contour of your body,” explains Michael Roizen, M.D., chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. “Instead of weight settling on your hips, it goes to your belly.”
Essentially, abdominal fat takes two major forms: subcutaneous fat (the visible kind just below the skin) and visceral fat (which is embedded deep within your abdomen and wraps around the organs clustered there). Though the first kind of fat is easier to see, the latter kind poses the far greater health risk—and as a result, is more important in your overall quest to lose belly fat. Weirdly, this fat is not always evident. Even if you’re not overweight, you still could be packing a lot of visceral fat. (Related: 7 Reasons You’re Not Losing Belly Fat)
Hidden or not, visceral fat does a real number on your health because of where it sits in the body. With fat, as with real estate, it’s all about location, and each fat “depot” has a highly specialized function. “We used to think all fat was created equal, that it was just a storage bin for excess calories,” says Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D., a consultant to the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. “But that’s not true.”
Fat, like muscle, is now known to be metabolically active; it produces dozens of chemicals, including hormones that signal to the brain that someone is hungry or satisfied. “Indeed, we now think of fat tissue depots as endocrine organs,” says diabetes researcher Philipp Scherer, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Texas.