Love Handles: Causes, Prevention and Treatment Options

Written by Timothy McGee, MD, Board Certified Plastic Surgeon on June 21, 2022 No Comments

love handles

Love handles are the result of fat accumulation around the waist. Also known as ‘muffin top,’ this abdominal fat above the hips is typically very stubborn to both diet and exercise. Many people are unable to get rid of their love handles even if they are at their ideal body weight.

Fortunately, there are lifestyle changes, specific exercises, and body contouring treatments (both surgical and non-surgical) that can help address love handles. If you have unwanted accumulated fat around your waist, continue reading to learn the best options for getting rid of that muffin top!

What Causes Love Handles?

Love handles are the result of fat retention around the waist. In general, when we consume more calories than we burn, the excess energy is stored as fat. And while fat can be stored anywhere in the body, both men and women are more likely to store fat around the belly, waist and hips.

Love handles are particularly noticeable when we’re wearing tight-waisted clothing, as excess fat is pushed over the top of our waistband.

Who Is Most Susceptible to Love Handles?

Storing fat in the belly, waist and hip area is common. There are, however, factors that make some people more susceptible to love handles than others.

  • Gender: While both genders can develop love handles, men tend to be a little more susceptible as the abdomen is one of the primary places to accumulate excess fat. Women, in contrast tend to store fat in their buttocks and thighs first.
  • Age: Love handles often tend to manifest in mid-adulthood. Belly fat is more common in post-menopausal women and middle-aged or older men.
  • Hormonal Imbalance: Stress, lack of sleep, or thyroid conditions create hormonal imbalances (especially too much cortisol) which leads to fat accumulation.
  • Inactivity: A sedentary lifestyle makes you more likely to accumulate fat, since inactive people are more likely to consume more calories than they burn.
  • High Glycemic Diet: A diet high in sugars and refined carbohydrates leads has been shown to support excess fat accumulation.

Do Love Handles Pose a Health Risk?

Love handles are a type of subcutaneous fat, which is fat stored underneath the skin. This is less dangerous than visceral fat, which is fat stored around your body’s organs. Still, fat accumulation is correlated with metabolic syndrome and the following conditions:

  • Sleep Disorders
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Heart Disease
  • Kidney Disease
  • Liver Disease
  • Cancer

Subcutaneous fat can be more challenging to get rid of than other types of fat. Love handles often remain, even as you lose weight.

Can Exercise Minimize Love Handles?

Targeting specific areas of the body for fat reduction just isn’t possible. Exercise works by lowering your total body fat percentage. To minimize love handles with exercise, you can work on strengthening muscles around the waist, but this is quite difficult. The obliques are quite thin and not prone to bulking up, while fat cells in this area are prolific.

That said, if you are exercising, there’s no drawback to focusing your efforts on the waist area. The following exercises will target the muscles underneath your love handles.

Side Plank: 

  • From plank pose, roll to the outer edge of your right foot and reach your left arm to the sky.
  • Stack your left shoulder over your right, and your left hip over the right.
  • Keep this alignment as you slowly lift and lower your hips 5-15 times.
  • Return to plank pose, then repeat on the other side.

Bicycle Crunches:

  • Lie supine with your feet raised and bent knees stacked over your hips.
  • Interlace your fingers behind your head and keep your elbows wide.
  • Crunch to lift, twisting your left elbow toward your right knee.
  • Lower back down (or not) then repeat on the other side
  • Move continuously for 10-50 repetitions

Russian Twists:

  • Sit with your legs together in front of you.
  • Bend your knees and elevate your feet.
  • Using only your body, or holding a weight, twist left and tap the ground to your left
  • Then, repeat on the right.
  • Keep your feet and knees level as you twist back and forth continuously
  • Repeat 10-50 times

Mountain Climbers:

  • From plank pose, draw your left knee toward your left elbow
  • Return to plank
  • Repeat, bringing your right knee to your right elbow
  • Keep alternating back and forth, quickly and continuously, for 10-30 seconds
  • Try 3 or more sets

Lifestyle Changes to Help Reduce Body Fat

Doing crunches or spot-exercises alone will do little to help reduce body fat. To shrink your love handles by reducing your total body fat percentage, the following lifestyle changes may be necessary.

Exercise: In general, movement burns calories, which means fewer calories get stored as body fat. Total body strength training helps build muscles, which speeds metabolism and fat burning. High intensity interval training (HIIT) and cardio workouts also contribute to fat loss.

Eat Well: In general, consuming more calories than you need leads to fat storage, so limit your portions as needed. More specifically, excess carbohydrates tend to be the culprit. Avoid added sugars and refined carbohydrates to help reduce body fat.

Reduce Stress: Stress cues fat retention and keeps the body inflamed. Reducing caffeine and limiting alcohol intake can help you sleep better for reduced stress. In addition, mindfulness, meditation and other healthy methods of self-care can help balance stress hormones.

What Treatments Are Available for Love Handles? 

Both surgical and non-surgical treatments are available to spot-reduce body fat, including the love handles. These are not weight-loss treatments. For best results, you should be within a few pounds of your ideal body weight before considering the following.

Non-Surgical Treatments for Love Handles

  • CoolSculpting: CoolSculpting is a non-invasive FDA-approved method for permanently removing fat cells from localized areas of the body, such as the love handles. The CoolSculpting device uses cryolipolysis to freeze and kill fat cells, which are then naturally cleared away through the body’s lymph system.
  • CoolTone: CoolTone uses magnetic pulses to spot-tone and strengthen small areas of the body, including the abdomen. The non-invasive method stimulates more muscle contractions than can be achieved at the gym alone. The addition of lean muscle mass in the abdomen can help recontour the area, minimizing the appearance of love handles. CoolTone can also be performed in conjunction with CoolSculpting to provide the most dramatic result possible.

Surgical Treatments for Love Handles

  • Liposuction: Liposuction is a surgical procedure that is the “gold standard” in fat removal. Liposuction procedures have the ability to instantly remove pocket fat from specific targeted areas like the waist. During a traditional liposuction procedure, your doctor will inject a solution into regions or subcutaneous fat to liquefy fat cells. The liquified fat cells are then permanently removed using a small vacuum-like device. There are advanced forms of liposuction including Vaser Hi Definition lipo and SmartLipo, which (compared to traditional liposuction) offer more efficient fat removal with less unwanted side effects.

Each of the above methods work best, and results are more long lasting, when performed in combination with regular exercise and a fat-reducing diet.

Timothy McGee, MD

Dr. McGee has been practicing plastic surgery for more than 18 years in all areas of the field, including cosmetic surgery and reconstructive breast and facial surgery. Dr. McGee is board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and the American Board of Surgery. He has numerous hospital affiliations in the Round Rock and greater Austin areas and is a member of the American Society of plastic Surgeons, American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, American College of Surgeons and Austin Smiles.

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