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Belly Fat or Bloating? How to Tell the Difference

Figure out what’s happening in your waist area, plus 7 ways to minimize discomfort and reduce fat


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What is going on with your waistband? Is it tight because you are bloated and overfull from a fiber-heavy meal, or is it the upshot of midlife weight creep?

Both bloating and belly fat are common problems for people over age 50, when digestion slows, and people naturally lose muscle mass and bone density.

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Age-related digestive changes and common issues such as constipation can trigger bloating symptoms, according to Sandra J. Arévalo Valencia, director of community health and wellness at Montefiore Nyack Hospital in Nyack, New York. Recurrent bloat can hamper your quality of life. “It gives you discomfort, gas, sometimes even pain,” she says.

Yet, bloat may be easier to accept than belly fat.

“Especially when you're over 50, and you're in denial about needing to lose weight, you might think that you're not overweight, you're just bloated,” says Arévalo Valencia, who is also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Belly fat creep

Like it or not, most older adults tend to gain a little weight with each year that passes. While they may know the serious health risks linked to with visceral or belly fat, including metabolic diseases, high blood pressure and diabetes, they may not immediately recognize their own gain in girth.

Multiple factors, such as alcohol intake, sedentary lifestyle, or eating highly processed foods can contribute to both belly problems. 

Before you tackle the problem properly, be sure to identify it.

What’s the difference between bloat and belly fat?

“Bloating is either a feeling of uncomfortable fullness, or an actual visible distension of your abdomen, because of something going inside your digestive tract,” explains Tamara Duker Freuman, a New York-based dietitian whose practice focuses on the dietary management of digestive and metabolic diseases. “Maybe it's too much poop in your colon, maybe it's because you have a lot of gas,” she says, noting that the symptoms may come and go.

Fat doesn't change unless you lose weight, according to gastroenterologist Mark Pimentel, M.D., executive director of the Medically Associated Science and Technology (MAST) Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “You wake up with the same amount of material on your front of your stomach each day.”

On the other hand, he says, bloat can ebb and flow. “Bloating is least in the morning when you wake up because you’ve had time to clear or absorb it,” he explains, adding that the bloating is worse in the late afternoon after you’ve had a meal or two. "The more you eat during the day, the more gas builds up in your intestine, the more your stomach will stick out."

“You can grab belly fat with your hand,” says Arévalo Valencia, whereas bloat can happen suddenly, after a meal, especially one that includes dairy products, artificial sweeteners or other common foods that can cause belly bloating.

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Belly fat tends to accumulate gradually, after a perfect storm of factors – age, stress, hormone flux — coincide. Bloat may be short-term, triggered by food, drinks or disease. In addition, several common medications can cause bloating.

Still not sure if you have bloat or abdominal fat? Wrap a measuring tape around your waist. Women over 35 inches or men over 40 inches are likely overweight.

7 ways to fight bloating and belly fat

Addressing either — or both — of these problems is critical to feeling your best. It is challenging, but not impossible, to lose weight after age 50. To help manage bloat and lose weight, use all the tools at your disposal, suggests Arévalo Valencia. Consider trying these strategies and often-overlooked resources.

1. Try a food journal or diary

To investigate bloat causes, consider using a food diary or free digital app diet trackers such as Cara Care, Symple Symptom Tracker or Low FODMAP Diet A to Z. Tracking and noting symptoms can help you identify the beverages, sweeteners or ingredients that commonly trigger bloating symptoms.

 According to Arévalo Valencia, if you want to lose weight, the same tool can help you give your diet a reality check — as well as recognize how many times a week you're eating outside your home.

When people eat out, she explains, they tend to think a meal is healthier than it actually is, because they don’t know what’s really in the food. She tells clients to notice what they’re eating and to be mindful about how foods are seasoned, as well as how much fat, salt and sugar they contain.

2. Get moving

Physical activity is another double duty solution for bloat both and belly fat. Besides burning calories, moving around will get your digestive tract moving, build muscle and preserve bone density. 

Cardio exercise, such as walking or running, helps deflate bloat and burn calories, while resistance or strength training is key for reducing body fat and maintaining muscle as you age.

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3. Talk to your doctor about referring you for sessions with a registered dietitian

“Your PCP [primary care physician] can recommend that you see a dietitian not just for weight loss, but for chronic disease management,” says Arévalo Valencia, noting that older adults are prone to high blood pressure, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome and high cholesterol. If you have a health issue that your insurer says qualifies, you may be eligible for counseling sessions.  Find an registered dietitian through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics at eatright.org.

4. Consider group programs

Look for ones that you may qualify for. If you, like 40 percent of Americans over age 50, are overweight, you may be eligible for The National Diabetes Prevention Program, a free Centers for Disease Control (CDC) program that many hospitals and community health centers offer. While the goal is to reduce type 2 diabetes risk, the program also helps with stress management and exercise.

5. Use smoking cessation support

If you are ready to quit smoking — a habit that’s linked to abdominal obesity, bloating, GERD and other serious ills — you can address both issues. Find free or affordable support via 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669), your doctor’s office or the CDC.

6. Be realistic

There is no magic bullet, and fighting belly fat is a long game. Even if you pursue weight loss medication or surgery, you will need to incorporate more exercise and good nutrition, says Pimentel. Adds Arévalo Valencia, while you won’t see your stomach shrink overnight, there are big short-term benefits to weight loss efforts: more energy, less fatigue.

7. Show yourself some compassion

Yes, there are many health risks related to carrying extra weight around your waist. Even so, it is normal and natural to get a little heavier at this life stage. “Human beings gain weight as they age,” Freuman says. She cites studies that show the protective health benefits that come with a slightly higher BMI later in life.

“Don’t catastrophize around normal weight gain and middle age,” she says. “It creates this insane amount of pressure and unrealistic expectations." It can be difficult to control the number on a scale, but “you can control your behaviors. And the best thing that you can do, especially as you age, besides eating to maintain a favorable body composition, is exercise.”

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