I recently had a conversation with my mom about how our bodies fluctuate, particularly when it pertains to our weight. "My face always thins out first," she told me matter-of-factly, which had me question whether or not her observation carried weight (excuse the pun) or if the change is more obvious because the face is more outwardly conspicuous than, say, your midsection. But in thinking about my own body, I always notice weight gain in my stomach and thighs more than any other area. In turn, I find it increasingly more difficult to lose weight in those areas and will instead lose weight in a random section like my upper body while my thighs and stomach remain virtually the same. The body's ability to transform is equal parts fascinating and frustrating, and the more I thought about it, the more I needed an answer: Why doesn't the body lose and gain weight in a steadier, less concentrated manner—or, is this not the case at all and just seems that way? I spoke to several nutritionists and fitness experts for the lowdown on weight loss and gain.
The Science Behind Weight Loss and Gain
The reason you gain weight in your midsection so rapidly and not in, say, your calves and forearms is because the adipocytes (or fat cells), which are found all throughout the body, are more plentiful in the hip, buttock, and thigh area. This is especially true in women, explains NASM certified personal trainer and Fhitting Room FhitPro Simon Lawson. "Because of this, women will typically put on weight in those areas quicker than their male counterparts."
But before you damn the patriarchy, men are also subject to gaining weight in their stomach the fastest. The reason women are more prone to fat along their hips, thighs, butt, and stomach is because of something F-Factor creator Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD, and best-selling author of The F-Factor Diet, calls "sex-specific fat," or stubborn fat that "serves as an energy reserve for the demands of pregnancy and lactation. It is typically the last place you will lose weight as your body wants to save it to help fuel the demands of child-bearing," she explains.
For men, there is no "evolutionary purpose" of harboring belly fat, also known as visceral fat, a dangerous type of fat that envelopes your organs and is linked to metabolic disease, she says. The upside: While abdominal fat is harder to lose for women, Zuckerbrot says it's overall the easiest to lose because it breaks down more quickly: "Studies have shown that increasing fiber intake can help to decrease the amount of this dangerous visceral fat."
Lisa Wheeler, VP of fitness at Daily Burn, says that genetics also play a large role in how we gain fat. "There are four ways in which we store fat: 1. It's evenly distributed, 2. the trunk and ab area (predominately men), 3. the trunk, leg, and glute area (predominately women), and 4. The abdominal area. [Naturally slender individuals] can be considered 'obese' by having a high body fat percentage in relation to their lean muscle and still look slender because the fat is evenly distributed," she explains. "In terms of loss, it may be easier [depending on the individual] to shed fat in the trunk and ab area as opposed to the leg and gluteal area, which is why it appears that men lose weight/fat faster than women. Similarly, Wheeler says women who tend to carry weight in the trunk and ab area seem to lose weight faster than women who carry weight in their glutes and legs. In other words, while weight loss and gain differ by gender, they also greatly differ from person to person. (And Fitting Room FhitPro Amanda Butler confirmed my mom's suspicions, saying that some women may lose weight in their face first.)
Can You Target Fat Loss?
Belly fat–burning elixirs will not target stomach fat and help it melt away like they claim. Same with the foods you eat: While fiber has been shown to help decrease the amount of visceral fat in the abdominal area, Zuckerbrot explains that subcutaneous fat (the kind of fat that lies directly under the skin) will only decrease with overall weight loss. This can be done by creating a caloric deficit (eating fewer calories than you've typically been consuming) to decrease overall fat stores and eating whole, fresh foods instead of processed fat and sugar.
Ideally, the key to reducing fat is through exercise, but know this: You can't reduce fat in different areas of your body through targeted workouts. Sure, you can tone these areas and in turn burn more calories via muscle development, but there is no "fat-busting" exercise for your stomach and buttocks. Instead, you need to utilize an overall approach to fitness. Explains Butler, "Doing total-body workouts will help to reduce total body fat and strength training will tone up and build muscle that will then define parts of your body." This can be achieved through high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and lifting weights to build lean muscle, which subsequently supports universal fat loss.
Jeffrey Gladd of the Care/of Scientific Advisory Board echoes these sentiments and warns against spending focus on specific areas of the body when working out, citing that "a holistic approach to losing fat will likely be more effective." Like Butler, he advises against placing focus on singular body parts—like the abs—as doing so is exhausting time that would be "much more wisely spent on big muscle groups, providing the greatest bang for your buck for overall fat loss."
Another way to support weight loss is by recalibrating your hormones. Charles Passler, nutritionist to models like Bella Hadid, says an estrogen imbalance may create the inability to lose weight and, conversely, the ability to gain it very easily. He explains, "At normal levels, estrogen helps insulin do its job to manage blood sugar. When estrogen gets thrown off, it turns the body into a weight-gaining machine."
While regulating your hormones sounds like a tall order, the solution lies greatly in your diet. Passler explains, "When you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar rises. Insulin lowers blood sugar by depositing it into three different places in your body. When insulin is working correctly—not too high and not too low—it sends a small amount of glucose to your liver, a large amount to your muscles to use as fuel, and little or none to fat storage. When everything is balanced, you produce the right amount of insulin to have your blood sugar maintain the proper balance." However, when estrogen levels are high, the cells that produce insulin are not able to function properly and you can become insulin-resistant. As a result, insulin loses the ability to deposit glucose into the liver and muscles, which means sugar levels are raised and glucose is stored as fat. "The fat related to an estrogen imbalance is typically deposited in the hips," he explains. "This is the classic pear-shaped body type and why the pear-shaped body type is much more common in women than men."
To prevent the excess fat storage, Passler suggests eating foods that decrease estrogen in both men and women, such as cruciferous vegetables, broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, apples, and flaxseed. In contrast, he warns against these estrogen-boosting foods: soy-based products, sugar, red meat, any item with added hormones, cow's milk, dairy products, and BPA from foods and liquids stored in plastic. Passler says you can also decrease estrogen levels by reducing stress, getting more exercise, and sleeping more.