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Drinking Habits

The Causes of a Beer Belly (and How To Get Rid of It)

June 23, 2023
24 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 23, 2023
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Reframe Content Team
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An individual holding a glass of beer

In the cartoon world of The Simpsons, Homer Simpson’s famous beer belly is one of his most recognizable and endearing traits. When he puts down his beloved Duff beer and temporarily loses the belly that comes with it in the episode “Duffless,” the change only lasts for a brief time. By the next episode, the iconic character is back to his normal self — and we viewers wouldn’t have it any other way.

In real life, the dreaded beer belly is a bit more of a nuisance. We've heard about it, we've seen it, and some of us may even be experiencing it — it’s the inflated abdomen many of us get after enjoying one too many brews for too many weeks, months, or years in a row. What causes a beer belly? More importantly, how can we get rid of a beer belly? Let's find out!

What Causes a Beer Belly?

Before exploring the causes of a beer belly, let’s review some important facts about abdominal fat in general.

Fat can be stored in various parts of the body, such as the thighs, arms, and buttocks. However, belly fat, in particular, has become a major health concern for many. This type of fat is categorized into two main types:

  • Subcutaneous fat. This is the outer layer of fat that you can pinch. It sits between our skin and the abdominal wall.
  • Visceral fat. This is the deeper, internal fat that surrounds our organs, such as the liver and intestines. This visceral fat poses the most significant health risks.

Several factors contribute to the accumulation of belly fat, otherwise known as a “beer belly”:

  • Poor diet. Consuming too many processed foods, sugary beverages, and unhealthy fats can lead to weight gain and increased belly fat.
  • Stress. Chronic stress elevates cortisol levels, which can lead to increased appetite and fat storage in the abdominal area.
  • Lack of physical activity. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to weight gain, including increased belly fat.

The Risk of Excess Belly Fat

In order to get rid of a beer belly, we must also understand why they are detrimental to our well-being. Having excessive belly fat isn’t just an aesthetic concern — it’s linked to a variety of health issues:

  • Heart disease. Visceral fat produces inflammatory markers that can increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Type 2 diabetes. Belly fat can affect insulin resistance, increasing the chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Sleep apnea. Excess fat around the abdomen puts pressure on the lungs, potentially leading to breathing issues and sleep disturbances.
  • Certain cancers. Growing evidence suggests that visceral fat may increase the risk of colorectal and breast cancers.
Understanding the Calories in Alcohol

Understanding Fat Metabolism

To get rid of a beer belly, we also need to grasp the concept of fat metabolism.

When we consume more calories than our body can use, the extra calories are stored as fat. Our bodies first use carbohydrates for energy, followed by fats and then proteins. Excess carbs are converted into fat and stored for later use. The location where the body stores this fat is largely influenced by genetics, but hormones, age, and lifestyle factors play a role too.

When we lose weight, the body converts stored fat into usable energy. It’s essential to note that targeted fat loss, often called “spot reduction,” isn't scientifically supported. This means that doing hundreds of sit-ups a day won’t specifically burn belly fat. However, a combination of cardiovascular exercises and strength training can help decrease overall body fat, which, in turn, will reduce belly fat.

What Is a Beer Belly, Really?

Contrary to its name, a “beer belly” isn't just a result of drinking beer — the term is commonly used to describe the abdominal obesity that may result from excessive alcohol intake, including but not limited to beer.

That said, beer is especially rich in calories and carbohydrates, with a single pint containing about 200 calories — about the same as a slice of pizza! When we drink beer, we're essentially consuming “liquid bread.” The human body — efficient machine that it is — prefers to use the easiest energy source available. When we’re drinking, the most accessible source of energy is the alcohol we've just consumed.

But what happens to all the other calories we've taken in throughout the day? Well, they’re stored away for later use — primarily as fat. And unfortunately, due to a range of factors including genetics, gender, and hormones, this fat is often stored in our midsection. Voila: the beer belly!

Beer Belly: The Impact of Hormones

Alcohol’s effect on our hormone levels contributes to fat storage, and thus, a beer belly, as well.

  • Cortisol. Drinking triggers the production of cortisol, the stress hormone that leads to fat accumulation, especially around the belly. It can also lead to cravings for sugary and fatty foods, contributing to increased caloric intake.
  • Testosterone. Alcohol also decreases our levels of testosterone — a hormone that helps burn fat. The more we drink, the harder it becomes for our body to burn off the excess fat, which then gets stored in our midsection.
  • Ghrelin and leptin. While not directly linked to alcohol consumption, the hormones ghrelin and leptin also deliver a double belly-blow when it comes to abdominal fat. Ghrelin (often referred to as the “hunger hormone”) stimulates appetite and promotes fat storage. Leptin, on the other hand, helps regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger, which, in turn, diminishes fat storage.

    Sleep patterns disturbed due to excessive alcohol consumption can lead to an imbalance in the levels of these hormones: ghrelin levels go up, making us hungrier and more prone to create and store fat; leptin levels, which could help mitigate the increased ghrelin, plummet. This imbalance can lead to increased hunger and subsequent overeating and weight gain.
  • Insulin. Finally, alcohol can also affect insulin, the hormone that regulates our blood sugar levels. Research shows that drinking alcohol causes an insulin surge, which promotes fat storage and inhibits fat burning. This can lead to weight gain and contribute to the development of a beer belly.

Can Regular Drinking Cause a Beer Belly?

What about moderate drinking — can that cause a beer belly, too? Or is it just excessive drinking that we have to worry about?

While the risks (and severity) are certainly greater with excessive drinking, even staying within the guidelines doesn’t necessarily save us from the dreaded beer belly over time, especially if we are physically inactive or genetically predisposed to store fat in the abdominal area.

Can Women Get Beer Bellies?

Though common belief would have us think otherwise, beer bellies don’t just happen to men. Women can and do develop beer bellies, too. However, women’s beer bellies can be somewhat different from men’s due to distinctions in gender physiology and hormones:

  • Biology and fat storage. Women's bodies are biologically wired to hold onto fat because of their roles in childbirth and breastfeeding. They’re evolutionarily predisposed to store fat in areas like the hips and thighs — the notorious “pear shape.” However, that doesn't make women immune to accumulating fat in the abdomen. Just like men, when they consume excessive calories, especially from alcohol, they can develop the familiar bulging beer belly.
  • Hormonal factors. Women’s fat storage patterns shift with hormonal changes, particularly during and after menopause. A decline in estrogen levels can redirect fat storage from the thighs and hips to the abdominal area, increasing the risk of developing a beer belly.
  • The calories count. Regardless of gender, consuming alcohol provides our bodies with extra calories. Many alcoholic beverages, beer included, are calorie-dense without offering much nutritional value. For both men and women, consistently consuming more calories than burned — especially when those calories come from alcohol — can lead to weight gain and a beer belly.
  • The societal misconception. The stereotype that only men develop beer bellies has been perpetuated by media, cartoons, and societal beliefs. However, in the real world, excessive calorie intake, lack of physical activity, and hormonal factors don't discriminate based on gender.

Beer Belly or Bloat?

It’s worth noting that abdominal fat isn’t always the culprit behind what looks like a beer belly — it could also be a temporary version caused by bloating.

Some brews carry carbs that can be a tad dramatic in your digestive system, leading to gas. And carbonation amplifies the bloating effect. First off, beer is carbonated, and when we sip it, the bubbles enter our digestive system. Bubbles have volume, and volume needs space. Hello, puffed-up belly!

Many beers, especially richer varieties, contain complex carbohydrates. Sometimes, our digestive system plays the slow game with these carbs, taking a long time to break them down. While they linger, they ferment, and they can produce gas as a result. Moreover, alcohol can slow our stomach emptying time, and when things get sluggish, gas builds up in the digestive tract.

When we’re understanding how to get rid of a beer belly, we must consider whether it’ll lessen in size or stick around. Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Duration. Abdominal fat is the long game — it builds up slowly and demands consistent efforts to shed. Bloating is more of a flash in the pan, often making a swift exit after digesting.
  • Touch test. A simple prod can tell them apart. Bloating makes your stomach feel hard (thanks to the gas), while subcutaneous abdominal fat is softer to the touch.
  • Origins. While both are influenced by what you eat and drink, abdominal fat focuses on the cumulative effects of long-term calorie intake, coupled with hormonal factors. Bloating is more about recent consumption choices.

How To Get Rid of Beer Belly

Now that we understand the causes, risks, and various factors that constitute a beer belly, let’s explore how to get rid of one.

What are some steps we can take?

  • Moderate drinking. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning — the first step is to cut back on alcohol consumption. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that men should limit their alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day, and women to one drink.

    Keeping a record of how much alcohol you’re consuming can help you see data, identify patterns, and make necessary changes.
  • Eat a balanced diet. While reducing alcohol intake is important, it's equally essential to pay attention to what you’re eating. Consuming a balanced diet full of whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables can help your body function optimally and burn fat more efficiently. The goal is to enjoy a variety of nutrients while staying mindful of calories.

    High-protein foods are especially important when it comes to keeping belly fat in check. Protein makes us feel full and reduces overeating. Foods high in protein also support muscle growth, which increases metabolic rate and helps us burn more calories.
  • Balance alcohol with water. For every beer you drink, try to consume an equivalent amount of water to stay hydrated and prevent overindulgence.
  • Hydrate smartly. Drinking water can increase your metabolic rate, helping you burn more calories. Plus, it's a great way to stay full and avoid overeating. Elevate your hydration game by filling up a jug with water and adding slices of cucumber, lemon, or berries. Let it sit for a few hours. This infusion tastes great and provides added vitamins!
  • Exercise regularly. You knew this was coming, didn't you? While there are no specific “beer belly exercises,” regular exercise is a crucial part of any healthy lifestyle, and it’s especially important when trying to lose belly fat. Both cardio exercises (such as running or cycling) and strength training (with free weights, resistance bands, or machines) can help decrease body fat and increase muscle mass. This improves your overall body composition and aids in beer belly reduction. As a bonus, exercise is a fantastic stress reliever and mood booster. You might not even want that drink after a good sweat!
  • Get enough sleep. We often overlook the impact of a good night’s sleep on our overall health and weight management. When you’re sleep-deprived, your body produces more of the hormone ghrelin (which signals hunger) and less of the hormone leptin (which signals fullness). As we discussed above, this imbalance can lead to overeating and weight gain, including belly fat.
  • Embrace probiotics. Why? A healthy gut can play a significant role in weight management. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that promote a healthy gut environment.

    Incorporate fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir into your diet. If these aren’t to your taste, consider a probiotic supplement (after consulting with a healthcare provider).
  • Spice up your life with thermogenic foods. Some spices can raise your body's metabolism, leading to calorie burning. This effect is due to the thermogenic process, in which your body burns calories to produce heat. Add a dash of cayenne pepper to your food, sip on green tea, or start your day with a warm cup of water mixed with freshly squeezed lemon and grated ginger.
  • Go old school with hula hooping. It's not just child's play! Hula hooping can be a fun way to engage your core muscles and reduce belly fat. Start with a weighted hula hoop for beginners. Set a playlist, and challenge yourself to hoop for one full song, then two, and gradually increase your endurance.
  • Embrace the 10-minute dance break. Not only is dancing a great stress-reliever, but it’s also an effective way to burn calories. Set a daily alarm as a reminder. When it goes off, blare your favorite upbeat song and dance like nobody’s watching. This short, intense burst of activity can be more effective than you'd think.
  • Take the scenic route. Small additions to your daily step count can make a significant impact over time. If you drive, park farther away from your destination and walk. If you're on public transit, get off a stop or two early. Enjoy the scenery and the benefits of added movement.
  • DIY belly massage. Massaging your belly can improve digestion, relieve bloating, and even help tone the muscles. After a warm shower, take a few drops of coconut oil or any massage oil, and gently massage your belly in a circular motion, clockwise (right to left). Do this for 5-10 minutes daily.

How To Get Rid of a Beer Belly: The Takeaways

While a beer belly can be bothersome, and in many cases, detrimental to our health, we can mitigate it — it all comes down to our lifestyle choices. With the right steps, we can ditch the beer belly for good and optimize our overall well-being.

Remember to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new diet or exercise program. Everyone's body is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. So listen to your body and prioritize your health — over time, even small changes will make a big difference!

Summary FAQs

1. What exactly is a "beer belly"?

A "beer belly" refers to abdominal obesity resulting from excessive alcohol intake. However, it's not solely from beer; other alcoholic beverages and lifestyle factors can contribute too. Essentially, it's the storage of fat in the midsection due to excessive calorie intake and hormonal changes.

2. Does beer contain more calories than other alcoholic beverages?

Beer is rich in calories and carbohydrates, with one pint containing roughly 200 calories — akin to a slice of pizza. While some alcoholic drinks might be lower in calories, many mixers and cocktails can also be calorie-heavy.

3. How does alcohol affect hormone levels related to fat storage?

Alcohol can increase the production of cortisol, a hormone that promotes fat storage, especially around the belly. It also decreases testosterone, which helps burn fat, making it challenging for our bodies to burn excess fat.

4. Are there other factors besides alcohol that contribute to belly fat?

Yes! Poor diet, chronic stress, lack of physical activity, genetics, and imbalances in hormones like ghrelin and leptin can all contribute to the accumulation of belly fat.

5. What’s the difference between subcutaneous and visceral fat?

Subcutaneous fat is the pinchable outer layer located between your skin and abdominal wall. Visceral fat is the deeper fat surrounding organs like the liver and intestines. While both types matter, visceral fat is particularly linked to various health concerns.

6. Are there fun and unique ways to help reduce belly fat?

Absolutely! Some methods include hula hooping, spicing up your meals with thermogenic foods, embracing a daily dance break, and drinking delicious infused water. These can make the process enjoyable and effective.

7. Is spot reduction, like doing sit-ups, an effective way to lose belly fat?

No, targeted fat loss or "spot reduction" is not scientifically supported. While exercises like sit-ups can strengthen the abdominal muscles, a combination of cardio and strength training is essential to reduce overall body fat.

Say Bye-Bye to Your Beer Belly With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today! 

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