Reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Erectile dysfunction, or ED, is a common sexual performance issue that affects an estimated 30 million men in the United States.
A large variety of factors can increase your risk of developing ED, including being overweight or obese. This means that if you have a little extra fat around your waist, it may have an impact on your erections and sexual function.
So, can belly fat cause erectile dysfunction? While it may increase your risk of experiencing ED, the good news is that almost all cases of erectile dysfunction are treatable, including those that are caused by extra fat around your waist and love handles.
Below, we’ve explained what erectile dysfunction is, as well as the symptoms you may notice if you’re affected by ED.
We’ve also looked at the link between belly fat and erectile dysfunction, as well as your options for improving your erections and sexual performance.
Before we get into the specifics of belly fat and ED, let’s briefly go over what erectile dysfunction actually is, as well as the potential impact that it can have on your sex life.
Erectile dysfunction is a condition in which you’re unable to get or sustain an erection that’s firm enough to have satisfying sex. If you have ED, you might:
Find it difficult or impossible to get an erection at any time
Struggle to maintain an erection for long enough to have sex
Get an erection sometimes, but not every time you want to have sex
For some men, erectile dysfunction is a short-term problem that happens from time to time. For others, it’s a long-term, recurrent condition that has a major impact on their sexual health over a period of years or decades.
As a form of sexual dysfunction, ED can have a serious impact on your well-being and quality of life. When ED is not properly treated, it can cause a loss of intimacy in your sexual relationships and even contribute to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety disorders.
Our guide to erectile dysfunction explains the symptoms above and goes into more detail about what you may experience if you have ED.
A variety of health issues can increase your risk of experiencing erectile dysfunction, and being overweight or obese is one of them.
Healthy erections depend on two key things: sexual desire, which is what motivates you to have sex, and optimal blood flow to your penis, which is what allows you to become hard when you’re sexually aroused.
When you feel sexually stimulated, your nervous system releases naturally-occurring chemicals called neurotransmitters in the erectile tissue of your penis. This produces a chemical reaction that widens your blood vessels and increases blood flow.
As blood flows into your penis, it becomes firmer, giving you an erection suitable for penetrative sex.
Although the process of getting an erection may seem simple, a variety of different parts of your body are involved behind the scenes, including:
Your endocrine system. This is your body’s system for producing hormones. It consists of eight major glands located throughout your body, including your pituitary gland, thyroid gland and pancreas.
Your endocrine system is responsible for producing testosterone, the male sex hormone that’s responsible for regulating your level of sexual desire.
Your nervous system. This is the network of nerve cells throughout your body, which is responsible for processing information and triggering reactions. There are hundreds of billions of nerve cells, or neurons, throughout your body.
Your nervous system plays an essential role in allowing proper communication between your brain, penis and vascular system.
Your circulatory system. Also referred to as the vascular system, this is your heart and the network of blood vessels that supply your organs, tissues and cells with nutrient-rich blood.
Your circulatory system supplies blood to your penis, allowing you to get and maintain an erection.
Being overweight or obese can affect the function of these systems in several ways, which could make it harder for you to get an erection when you feel sexually aroused.
For example, excessive body fat is a known risk factor for low levels of testosterone. While the link between low testosterone levels and ED isn’t very precise, low testosterone may affect your sex drive and cause you to feel less interested in having sex.
Being overweight or obese can also affect your nervous system function. For example, there’s a well-established link between obesity and an elevated risk of developing type 2 diabetes, which is a common cause of erectile dysfunction.
Obesity is also one of the leading causes of cardiovascular health issues, such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease. Research shows that abdominal obesity, or fat around the waist, is a particularly concerning issue for heart health and function.
Because of these effects on your health, obesity is considered a significant risk factor for erectile dysfunction. In one study, researchers even found a link between body mass index (BMI) values and erectile dysfunction in men.
In the study, which was published in a Polish journal in 2014, men with BMI values in the obese range displayed a three times greater risk of of developing erectile dysfunction than men whose BMI values were in the normal range.
Even being overweight — meaning having a BMI value in the 25-30 range — was associated with a 1.5 times greater risk of developing ED.
The authors concluded that obesity contributed to ED to a “considerably greater extent” than the aging process — something that’s widely seen as the main risk factor for ED.
In short, while being overweight or obese doesn’t guarantee that you’ll develop ED, it’s a serious risk factor that can have a real, noticeable impact on your sexual health and performance.
In addition to being overweight or obese, a wide range of other health issues may also increase your risk of developing ED. These include physical health problems and psychological disorders that may affect your sex drive or self-confidence.
Physical causes of erectile dysfunction include:
Atherosclerosis (clogged arteries)
Heart and blood vessel disease
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Multiple sclerosis (MS)
Chronic kidney disease
Type 2 diabetes
Injuries to the penis, prostate, bladder, pelvis or spinal cord
Complications from surgery or other medical treatments
Certain medications, including those used to treat the conditions above, may also contribute to erectile dysfunction. For example, ED may become more severe if you take medication to treat high blood pressure, depression, anxiety or certain hormonal health issues.
Psychological issues that can contribute to ED include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and concerns about sexual performance or failure.
Some of these ED risk factors, including physical and mental health issues, could become more severe if you’re overweight or obese.
Our full guide to the causes of erectile dysfunction provides further information about the factors above and the effects that they can have on your sexual performance.
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Whether it’s caused by extra body weight, cardiovascular disease or a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety, erectile dysfunction is almost always treatable.
If you have ED, you may be able to improve your erections by making changes to your daily life, using medication or taking part in psychotherapy. We’ve covered these treatment options below and explained how each one may potentially improve your erections and sexual health.
If you’re currently overweight or obese, making certain changes to your habits and daily life can help you to lose weight and improve your sexual health.
One of the best things that you can do to reduce your risk of dealing with erectile dysfunction is to maintain a healthy weight. This typically means adjusting your lifestyle so that you can lose some of the excess weight you currently have.
You can lose body weight and improve your sexual health by:
Eating a healthy, balanced diet. Try to eat a balanced diet that contains fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources and healthy carbohydrates. Limit your intake of simple sugars, as these can elevate your blood sugar levels and increase your risk of diabetes.
Limiting your salt intake. Foods that contain large amounts of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, reducing your sodium intake may help to improve your cardiovascular function.
Cutting back on alcohol. Alcohol not only affects your sexual health — it’s also a major source of low quality calories. Try cutting back on your alcohol consumption to improve your sexual health and reduce your risk of developing a beer belly.
According to the CDC, men should limit their alcohol intake to two servings per day (for example, two 12-ounce beers or normal-sized glasses of wine).
Increasing your physical activity level. Physical activity can not only help with weight loss — it can also strengthen your cardiovascular system and improve blood flow to your penis.
Try to keep yourself physically active by getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, even if it’s just going for a walk or working in your garden. Over time, try increasing your physical activity level to further improve your heart health and sexual function.
In addition to losing weight and being more physically active, making other small but meaningful changes to your daily life can also help to reduce the severity of ED. These include:
Quitting smoking. Smoking can seriously affect your cardiovascular health by reducing blood flow and damaging your blood vessels. Not only can this contribute to ED — it can also increase your risk of serious issues such as heart failure, heart attack and stroke.
If you smoke, try your hardest to quit. Our full guide to smoking and erectile dysfunction goes into more detail about the numerous links between smoking, ED and other sexual health issues.
Avoiding illicit drugs. Some recreational drugs may affect your erections and sexual function. Try to avoid using illicit substances if you have ED, and consider treatment if you have a substance use disorder.
Our guide to naturally protecting your erection shares other habits and natural approaches that you can use to treat and prevent erectile dysfunction.
If you’re currently overweight or obese, making a few changes to your habits and lifestyle can help you to shed your spare tire and improve your sexual health. However, habits alone aren’t always enough to treat erectile dysfunction.
Another option for treating ED is to talk to your healthcare provider about using medication to improve your erections.
Currently, the FDA has approved four medications for treating erectile dysfunction — sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra®), tadalafil (Cialis®), vardenafil (Levitra®) and avanafil (sold as Stendra®).
These medications belong to a class of drugs called PDE5 inhibitors, which work by increasing the ability for blood to flow into your penis. They come in tablet form and can be taken before sex or, in the case of some medications, on a daily basis.
We offer several erectile dysfunction medications online, following a consultation with a licensed healthcare provider who will determine if a prescription is appropriate.
When erectile dysfunction is caused by a psychological or emotional problem, taking part in talk therapy can often help.
Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, involves talking to a licensed mental health provider about your thoughts, feelings and behavior. As part of therapy, you may learn strategies for managing bad habits and thought processes that affect your mental well-being.
Erectile dysfunction is a common problem that can develop for a variety of reasons, including a poor diet, lack of exercise and excess body fat.
If you’re overweight or obese, losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle may help to improve your erections and sexual function. It also offers a range of other benefits, including a reduced risk for diabetes, heart disease and other potentially serious health problems.
Interested in learning more about treating ED? Our guide to the most common treatments and drugs for erectile dysfunction provides more information about how prescription drugs such as sildenafil can prevent ED and improve your sexual performance.
You can also find out more about the common signs of ED in our guide to knowing if you have erectile dysfunction.