What Foods Cause Belly Fat?

Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Terri Forehand RN Terri Forehand RN

Terri Forehand is a critical care nurse with experience in adult critical care and emergency nursing.

Woman Squeezing Belly Fat

Consuming more calories than your body needs or consuming empty calories can lead to unwanted belly fat. Most processed foods offer little, if any, nutrition. If you don't burn these calories off through vigorous activity or exercise almost immediately, they are more likely to be stored as fat and contribute to serious health problems.

Not One Specific Food

There are many causes of belly fat and, technically, no one specific food leads to extra weight around the belly alone. Much depends on your activity level, genetics and overall calorie and fat intake. But regularly eating the following foods can contribute to the problem.


Carbohydrates are an essential nutrient but they are not created equal. There are three types of carbohydrates -- sugars, starches and fiber. These are broken down into simple (sugars) or complex (starches and fiber) carbohydrates. According to an article on fitness expert Jillian Michaels' website, simple carbohydrates such as white bread, candy, baked goods, and soda are broken down by the body easily, leading to insulin spikes and possibly increased belly fat. Complex carbohydrates including whole grains, fruits and vegetables are harder for the body to break down and are less likely to cause insulin spikes and weight gain.

Natural health expert Dr. Joseph Mercola, suggests that reducing your intake of carbohydrates can help you lose visceral belly fat, the type of fat responsible for an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. He indicates that most carbs contain fructose, a sugar that is quickly converted into fat in the body, and you should avoid eating foods containing high levels of natural fructose or those made with high fructose corn syrup.

Whether or not high fructose corn syrup causes weight gain is controversial and more study is needed but the fact is, most foods containing the ingredient are also high in calories and fat.

Following is a list of commercially prepared foods that often contain high fructose corn syrup:

  • Sodas
  • Juice boxes and fruit juices
  • Bread
  • Breakfast cereals and pre-sweetened oatmeal
  • Pre-packaged baked goods and crackers
  • Candy bars
  • Canned fruits
  • Ice cream
  • Jams and jellies
  • Salad dressings, condiments and sauces
  • Flavored yogurt, cottage or cream cheese

Trans Fat Foods

A PubMed abstract states that "trans fats should be banned from the food supply" for good reason. They raise bad cholesterol (LDL) in the body and cause inflammation of arterial cells. Most trans fat is made from a process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil (although a small amount of natural trans fat can be found in some meat and dairy). The end result is "partially hydrogenated oil."

Foods that contain trans fat are known for being unhealthy. According to Dr. Ray Sahelian, studies have linked trans fat to several major health problems including cancer, heart disease, endometriosis and infertility, and stroke.

Trans fat foods are usually high in calories and devoid of nutrition, and known to pack on the pounds around the belly when eaten regularly. A Wake Forest University School of Medicine study found that high trans fat diets actually cause a redistribution of fat tissue into the abdomen. Here are some trans fats foods to avoid:

  • Baked goods (especially pre-packaged cakes, doughnuts and cookies)
  • Ready-made frostings
  • Snack foods
  • French fries
  • Most battered and fried foods
  • Pie crusts and baking mixes
  • Shortening
  • Margarine


You've probably heard the term, "beer belly" and you might know someone who has one. Drinking a cold beer or glass of wine every now and then isn't likely to make you gain belly weight but regularly drinking them might. According to WebMD, there are a few reasons for this.

  • Alcoholic drinks are high in calories -- one beer average 150 calories.
  • When drinking alcohol, the liver burns alcohol and not fat.
  • Alcohol is often consumed in conjunction with eating unhealthy foods such as fried chicken wings, pizza or trans fat containing snack foods.

To avoid the dreaded beer belly, limit your consumption of alcoholic beverages to special occasions.

Foods High in Sodium

While salt doesn't cause belly fat per se, it does cause water retention and uncomfortable bloating around the abdomen. According to Jillian Michaels' website, the average diet contains much more than the recommended 2,300 milligrams per day, which can lead to bloating. You can limit your sodium intake by not adding salt to your foods but unfortunately, sodium is also hidden in many processed foods.

The following foods tend to be high in sodium and should be avoided or eaten sparingly. When purchasing, read labels carefully or choose low-salt options.

  • Canned soups
  • Pre-prepackaged pasta
  • Potato chips and pretzels
  • Bacon
  • Hot dogs
  • Cheese (Feta, Blue, Roquefort, Romano)
  • Canned vegetables
  • Deli meats
  • Condiments (salad dressings, soy sauce, sauces, ketchup)


Sodas are so unhealthy and have such a strong link to obesity that they deserve a category all their own. When you drink soda you're drinking nothing but empty calories in the form of high fructose corn syrup and refined sugar. As a National Institutes of Health study reports, consuming carbonated drinks may be a key factor in contributing to obesity.

Dr. Ayala Laufer Cauhana cites several studies on her Healthy Food, Healthy Living blog that conclude drinking sugar-laden beverages, especially soda, contributes to belly fat. With the average young American drinking up to 60 ounces of sugary drinks each day, that's a lot of extra pounds.

You may think you'll avoid gaining weight and stick to a healthy diet if you drink diet soda. Think again. While they may be low in calories, diet sodas contain a cocktail of artificial sweeteners, colorings and flavorings which offer zero nutrition and may increase sugar cravings. Although more research is needed to determine definitively if diet soda causes weight gain, no studies are necessary to determine they have hardly any benefits, unless you're using them temporarily to wean yourself off regular sodas.

A Healthier You

Everyone's body is different when it comes to weight distribution. But when you eat a healthy, clean diet, exercise regularly and avoid foods high in refined sugars and trans fats, you're less likely to gain weight in the belly or anywhere else and more likely to enjoy good health.

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