What Actually Causes a Beer Belly, and How to Get Rid of It

beer bottle beer belly
Oren Aks & Nina Gonzales / Thrillist

Beer belly, keg, spare tire, love handles, "big-boned," bowl full of jelly -- there are so many endearing terms for the extra blubber packed around your midsection, it's tough to choose a favorite. While the most popular, "beer belly," is a catchy, alliterative term, storing fat in your stomach area is a little bit more complicated than drinking too much beer. Though that doesn't help, obviously.

So why do you seem to get a little more rotund as you get older and your job gets a little worse and you just need a few beers to decompress, dammit, while others seem to maintain their abs, even when they pack on the pounds?

More important: Once you have a beer belly, how do you get rid of it? 

Your genetics play a huge role

Unfortunately, genetics are a crapshoot capable of producing many a terrible hand. Some people get to eat garbage all day long and not gain a pound, while others add a love handle just looking at a donut. Where your body decides to deposit fat works the same way; some people are just more prone to putting their flab in their belly area than others.

Dr. Eduardo Grunvald, program director at UC San Diego's Weight Management Program, confirms as much: "Genetics determine where our body likes to deposit fat storage." Basically, whether your gut winds up out of a too-small T-shirt picked up at a tourist trap in Florida is determined at birth. That's a simplification, but you get the idea. 

Gender also makes a difference

Men and women tend to pack on their pounds differently. For men, that means more fat in the belly area, says Dr. Grunvald, which explains why the classic beer-belly look usually happens to men -- it's also more of a pronounced look when all the weight is going into your gut, and not other parts. 

That helps explain why you tend to see it less on women, too; they typically store extra weight in the butt and thighs. Why men get to call theirs "beer bellies" while women are relegated to "muffin tops" is another conversation for another time.

Beer probably isn't the cause of your beer belly 

If you had to bet on a nationality that would study the causes of beer bellies, you'd put a ton of money on Germans, right? You'd win this hypothetical wager! While there seems to be some correlation between beer consumption and overall weight, scientists who "study" such things for a living found no indication that beer makes you fatter in the gut specifically. 

But even then, Czech beer researchers (close second in the above bet) found that beer consumption actually isn't a great indictor of overall weight, and a huge review of a bunch of different studies also found no association for moderate drinkers. Yet another review found that heavy drinkers did gain weight, but it wasn't dependent on the kind of alcohol. 

In short, you really can't blame beer for your beer belly. 

Age makes everything worse

The aging process can be a drag for many reasons, not least of which is the added weight. Your metabolism slows down, so you're more inclined to put on weight in general.

"For women, the big turning point is menopause," Dr. Grunvald says. "As women hit menopause, their body composition changes. The shift of fat turns from the butt and the thighs to more of the central region." So even if you remember the days when weight didn't beeline for your gut, the inexorable passage of time makes sure you do. Time strikes again! 

The biggest dietary cause is sugar

Here's where things get confusing. Although the term beer belly refers to the belief that drinking too many pints will give you a giant belly, food obviously makes the biggest difference, since even heavier drinkers tend to get the majority of their calories from food.

Your body breaks down different sources of energy differently, and stores them differently -- as it turns out, the biggest dietary reason you have a fat belly is sugar and refined carbohydrates.

"There's some evidence that diets high in fructose or high-fructose corn syrup may contribute to more insulin resistance and the deposition of fat inside the abdomen," Dr. Grunvald says. He adds that lifestyle overall can contribute to how fat is stored, which means if you're sitting on the couch, eating processed foods, drinking beer, and watching football every week, well, you can probably count on developing a beer belly. 

Maybe part of the problem is the name, but "sugar belly" kind of sounds like its own candy that you'd want to eat, not a condition to avoid. 

How to actually ditch your beer belly

Here's the good stuff! As is often the case, the best way to get rid of your beer belly is to avoid getting one in the first place. "Prevention of weight gain in the first place is the best recommendation," Dr. Grunvald says.

That's not so helpful for the people who already proudly sport a gut. If you're past the prevention stage and have already put on some extra pounds, there are ways to combat belly fat.

Cleaning up your diet is a good place to start, though you probably already knew that. According to Dr. Grunvald, you want to aim for mostly plants, healthy fats, and complex carbs. Exercise is important, too; high-intensity interval training may be the best to combat belly fat, he says, especially if you have an insulin resistance.

But since there's no evidence that beer causes a beer belly, the good news is that you don't have to get rid of beer to get rid of yours. Overall, the best way to start trimming your waistline is to just lose weight, since you can't spot-target fat loss. Cutting back on beer probably isn't a bad idea, but you don't need to go too crazy. 

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Christina Stiehl is a Health and fitness staff writer for Thrillist. She still blames her beer belly on actual beer. Follow her @ChristinaStiehl.