Struggling to lose belly fat but not sure how? You’re not alone. Stubborn belly fat often remains that final frontier in the realm of toning and weight loss, with many people struggling for years to get rid of it.
Understanding Fat in Your Midsection
Belly fat is the fat that appears around the abdominal area. Some people have the more dangerous visceral fat, which is fat that surrounds your organs and raises risk for heart disease.
It’s also possible to have visceral fat even if you’re thin elsewhere, says Mary Sabat, a nutritionist and ACE certified trainer based in Milton, Georgia. Visceral fat can be detrimental to health, even if a person appears slim, she explains.
There are several reasons that could explain the presence of belly fat and challenge to get rid of it, such as:
- It’s a quick source of energy for the body. It’s easy to accumulate but harder to lose since the body doesn’t want to part with easy energy.
- Dietary habits contribute. Foods high in sugar and saturated fat can lead to more belly fat.
- Alcohol consumption. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to the infamous beer belly.
- High cortisol levels and poor sleep. If you’re under stress or getting poor sleep, your body will continue to release the stress hormone cortisol. Some hormone levels, including cortisol, contribute to having more midsection fat.
- Age. Growing older also works against you. In men, testosterone helps to contribute to muscle mass. But as a man loses testosterone with age, his body tends to lose muscle mass and gain weight.
- Decreased estrogen in women. The loss of estrogen through perimenopause and menopause can change fat distribution in a woman’s body, even if there isn’t a major weight gain. The fat that once gathered in the breasts, hips and thighs instead concentrates in the abdominal area. Women also tend to naturally hold on to more midsection fat for childbearing and nursing, Norvell adds.
However, these contributors don’t mean getting rid of belly fat is impossible. With lifestyle changes, such as increased physical activity and healthier food choices, you have some control over losing stomach fat at any age.
“It takes more diligence and intention with food, exercise and overall lifestyle habits,” says ShaNay Norvell, a fitness coach and author of “Stretch Your Stress Away with ShaNay” based in Dania, Florida.
The Dangers of Belly Fat
Many of us carry extra fat in our midsection. Yet for health reasons, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on abdominal fat because of its association with health risks. For women, a waist circumference that is 35 inches or more can increase your risk for health problems. For men, it’s 40 inches or more, according to Mayo Clinic. You can measure this with a tape measure, going across your belly button.
Some of the dangers of too much belly fat include:
13 Effective Ways to Get Rid of Belly Fat
If you’re looking to tone your tummy, there are a few changes you can make to your everyday habits to help whittle down your waistline and get rid of belly fat:
Refined sugar from foods and drinks – those which are not naturally occurring in foods like fruit – can cause your body to respond with inflammation, says Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian and Detroit-based national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Inflammation is part of the body’s healing process, but too much inflammation can have harmful effects. For instance, when the body has too much inflammation, it prefers to store fat in and around the belly for easier energy access, she explains.
Sugar can also raise blood sugar and insulin levels, leading the body to store more midsection fat. The body doesn’t have the same response to naturally occurring sugar in healthy, plant-based foods. With healthier dietary choices, there’s a steadier release of sugar into the bloodstream. Foods with naturally occurring sugar are also more likely to have fiber and vitamins and minerals, which support better health. Unprocessed foods with low amounts of naturally occurring sugar also are helpful for diabetes management and prevention, although you should check with your health care provider or a registered dietitian for tailored guidance when you have diabetes.
Limit added sugar in your diet to less than 10% of your total calories, advises Erin Palinski-Wade, a Sparta, New Jersey-based registered dietitian and author of “Belly Fat Diet for Dummies.” For instance, if you’re aiming for 1,800 calories a day, then added sugar should be no more than 180 calories of your overall calories. Apps such as MyFitnessPal and SparkPeople can track your calories and provide a closer look at the foods you eat and keep track of where you’re using those calories.
One source of added sugar that’s easy to overlook is sugary drinks, which typically have no nutritional value, Norvell says. Sugary drinks may also give you a quick boost of energy but that will be followed by a sugar crash and an energy slump. These may be tastier, but they’ll contribute to belly fat and can keep you from reaching your health goals.
- Coconut water.
- Hot water with lemon or other fruits.
- Sparkling water, which you can sweeten with a splash of 100% juice.
- Unsweetened tea or coffee.
Read nutrition labels to watch out for foods that are surprising sources of hidden sugar, including:
- Canned baked beans.
- Granola bars.
- Low-fat yogurt.
- Salad dressing.
- Spaghetti sauce.
Homemade condiments and dressings often taste better and contain less sugar, says registered dietitian Joel Totoro, director of sport science at Thorne HealthTech in Providence, Rhode Island.
Alcoholic drinks are filled with extra, unneeded calories that make their way to your waistline. Plus, some drinks with alcohol – looking at you, sweet cocktails – are loaded with sugar. Federal guidelines recommend one alcoholic drink a day or less for women and two drinks or less a day for men. Of course, it’s fine if you completely avoid alcohol, too.
Instead, try a non-alcoholic mocktail to keep your waistline in check while treating your taste buds. Make use of seasonings like mint, cinnamon and spices to add more flavor, Totoro recommends.
Here are a few fun mocktail ideas:
- A mocktail Paloma: Freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice, sparkling mineral water, lime juice and chipotle seasoning.
- A mocktail Moscow mule: A tablespoon of freshly-squeezed lime juice, ¾ cup ginger-flavored kombucha and seltzer water to taste. Garnish with fresh lime and mint as you desire. The fermented drink kombucha adds some gut-healthy probiotics, Derocha says.
- Sparkling water with a splash of 100% fruit juice and a slice of lime. “It’s refreshing and colorful,” Palinski-Wade says.
There’s also been a surge recently in the nonalcoholic beer market if you’re more of a beer drinker, Totoro says.
Try adding more high-fiber vegetables, such as broccoli and spinach, to your diet. The fiber will help you feel full more quickly and allow your digestive system to run more efficiently. This is important because constipation can lead to midsection bloat, but that goes away once you add more fiber-filled vegetables, Norvell says.
Beyond vegetables, there are plenty of healthy, high-fiber food options that will help you fill up faster, including:
You hear a lot nowadays about intermittent fasting, which involves fasting for a brief period each day and then limiting your eating to a specific time window. For instance, people who fast will eat between noon and 8 p.m. and then stick to only water and coffee until noon the next day.
Also called time-restricted eating, there’s some evidence that intermittent fasting can help lower waist circumference and insulin levels. However, better food choices and eating fewer calories – no matter the time of day – can lead to a reduced waist circumference, Palinski-Wade says.
The bottom line? Intermittent fasting can help, but so can eating healthier regularly.
Eating regular meals that include protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats will also support belly fat loss. These nutrient elements serve a variety of functions. Protein digests slower than carbs and helps you to feel full longer. You also burn more calories digesting protein than simple carbs and fat, and that can help lead to a flatter belly. Consuming about 30% of your calories from protein can help you meet daily requirement suggestions, helps boost your metabolism and control your appetite – all supporting a trimmed and toned waist.
Healthy fats are another dietary component that helps your body absorb nutrients, keeps you full and gives you energy. These contribute to a balanced diet that can go a long way toward a flatter belly. Some foods rich in healthy fats include:
- Salmon and other fatty fish.
Speak with a health care provider or registered dietitian if you need further help in choosing healthy foods.
Carbohydrates aren’t always the villain they’re often made out to be. The body uses carbs to make glucose, which provides the body with energy. That’s why you hear about carbs playing an important role for people who run long distances or participate in endurance races.
The body needs carbs, but it’s key to monitor the type of carbs you’re eating to promote better health. The three types of carbs are:
- Starches, which includes grains, starchy veggies like potatoes and beans.
- Sugar, which is a simple carbohydrate.
When it comes to losing belly fat, slowly digested, high-fiber carbs can help improve blood sugar management and lower your body’s insulin resistance. This can help to reduce belly fat, Palinski-Wade says. Foods like oats, beans and whole grains are carb sources that are nutrient-dense. This is a healthy contrast to carbs that come from foods with added sugars that reach the bloodstream quickly and can lead to a blood sugar spike.
Balancing carbs with a source of lean protein and healthy fat will go even further toward reducing belly fat, Palinski-Wade adds.
Unfortunately, there’s no sure way to completely eliminate stress just to banish belly fat. However, you can learn how to control your reaction to stress, so you aren’t causing a constant cortisol rush.
Consistently high cortisol levels can be linked to abdominal obesity, Derocha says. Here are a few tips to ease stress:
- Controlled breaths. One easy thing you can do is to practice slow, controlled breaths, in through your nose into your belly and then deeply exhaling while your lips are pursed, as if you’re whistling. The American Lung Association has a video demonstrating the proper belly breathing technique. This type of relaxed breathing lowers your heart rate, reduces stress hormones and can help with shortness of breath.
- Take time for yourself. Do something you enjoy every day, even if it’s just for 10 to 15 minutes, the American Heart Association advises. Create art, read, talk to a friend, take a relaxing bath or find another activity that allows you to tune out stress and tune in to me-time.
- Learn to say “no.” Instead of saying “yes” to anything that others ask you to do – and then end up overwhelming yourself – take a pause and say “no” as needed. This will help you prioritize your own health and wellness.
While all forms of exercise are healthy, some rank higher in fat burning potential. Cardio exercise – such as running or power walking, gets your blood pumping more than other exercises. It also helps you to:
Cardio exercise paired with resistance training can go a long way toward targeting belly fat. Resistance training includes things like lifting, Pilates and resistance bands. Resistance training is important for everyone but especially for those over age 30, as that’s when lean muscle mass decreases by about a pound a year, Derocha says. Aim for 30 minutes of resistance training three times a week, as well as daily stretching.
Whatever form of exercise you choose, perform it consistently to see the best results. Thirty to 60 minutes of heart-pumping dancing, walking, jogging or swimming five times a week is best, Norvell says.
Despite popular belief, exercises that focus on the midsection won’t lead you to magically wake up with less belly fat. We’ve all heard that abs are built in the kitchen, and it’s true. But paired with healthy eating, core strengthening can improve your abdominal muscle tone, and the combination of core exercises with cardio can help make the difference for midsection fat loss, Sabat says.
Core exercises like planks help strengthen the core muscles, which are located in your back, abdomen, hips and pelvic area. For the best results, combine a healthier diet, cardio, resistance training and core exercises.
Here are three core strength exercises you can do regularly:
- Planks: Get in the push-up position, and rest your weight on your forearms and toes. Keep a straight line from your head to heels. Engage your core, and hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds. Once you work up to holding a plank for 60 seconds, aim to repeat one or two more times.
- Ab crunches: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your hands behind your head. Engage your ab muscles, and lift your head, neck and shoulders off the floor. Slowly lower back down. Work up to three sets of 10.
Hollow holds: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Raise your arms straight back above your head. Engage your core while lifting your head, shoulders, arms and legs off the ground. Hold this position as long as you can. Lower back down and repeat. Work up to three sets of 10 hollow holds.
Want permission to sleep more? How about sleeping more while fighting belly fat? Well, here you go. Most adults need seven to nine hours of shut-eye a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Sleep also helps to control your appetite, as lack of sleep can make you want to eat more – and you’ll likely choose foods with more sugar and unhealthy fats.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
- Have a before-sleep routine to relax you. Consider including meditation, deep breathing or wind-down yoga.
- Move distracting electronics out of reach.
- Consider a small glass of low-fat milk one to two hours before bed, Palinski-Wade advises. Milk contains tryptophan, the same amino acid found in turkey that makes you sleepy, which will aid with sleep, too.
It’s easy to underestimate the calories you take in on a given day and overestimate the calories burned during and after exercise, Totoro says.
“Having a general understanding of your average daily intake enables you to make better-informed decisions that impact your overall weight and health,” he explains.
As helpful as tracking food, calories and exercise can be, it’s crucial to do this mindfully. Whether you’re tracking your food, calories and exercise on your own or using an app or fitness wearable device, don’t forget to take a step back to track how you feel on a particular day in response to the numbers, Totoro advises.
If regular tracking becomes a source of stress or your numbers negatively influence your relationship with food, exercise or body image, then consider other health-related measures. These could include how you feel overall and your perceived energy levels.
As you focus on losing belly fat, measuring your progress can hold you accountable, but it can also motivate you to continue to lose more, as long as you’re working to maintain a healthy weight. There are several ways you can measure progress when it comes to losing belly fat:
- Measure your waistline and take pictures of your front, back and side. Continue to measure and take pictures to document your progress each week.
- Try on a pair of non-elastic pants each week so you can feel any changes in tightness or looseness over time.
- Focus on differences in your energy or fitness level.
- When you have bloodwork done, look for reductions in your cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.
- Use body composition analysis, which provides a more detailed view of fat versus lean body mass. To do this, you’ll need a body composition scale at home or visit a gym or medical facility that has the right equipment.
You may see progress in your belly fat after a week or two if you implement dietary changes and exercise consistently, Norvell says. Progress may feel slow since the midsection is usually the last area to show change, especially for women. However, slow and steady changes can lead to keeping off belly fat in the long term.
“Remember that individual progress can vary, and it’s important to focus on sustainable lifestyle changes rather than rapid, short-term results,” Sabat says.
It may be tempting to pick just one tip from this list and stick with it without incorporating the other tips. For instance, you may decide to exercise more but still eat a lot of unhealthy food. If you really want to lose abdominal fat, combine your efforts for quicker results.
“Combining a healthy diet, regular exercise, stress management techniques and sufficient sleep can have a synergistic effect on reducing belly fat,” Sabat says.
Even if you end up trying a weight-loss drug like semaglutide (Ozempic or Wegovy), you may need to use tried-and-true belly-fat busting tips, Palinski-Wade says. A 2021 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that participants using a once-weekly dose of semaglutide lost five inches from their waistline over 68 weeks, but they also were following a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
You may find yourself wanting to lose belly fat even if you can’t exercise much. Perhaps you’re injured, recovering from surgery or work long hours in a sedentary job. Even in this situation, you can still make efforts to whittle your waistline with these tips:
- For meals, aim for a half-plate of nonstarchy vegetables, one-fourth of a plate of lean protein, one-fourth of a plate of a high-fiber carbohydrate and a sliver of healthy fat.
- If possible, find other ways to move throughout the day if you can’t do a full workout. Take the stairs rather than the elevator, take regular movement breaks after sitting down each hour and get busy doing household chores. Even a set of calf raises while seated after a meal can help drop blood sugar and contribute to belly-fighting efforts.
- Treat yourself to an extra helping of stress-reduction techniques like breathing exercises, meditation and quality sleep. These can help lower inflammation and stress hormones that prompt the body to store extra belly fat.
A Final Word
Getting rid of stomach fat isn’t easy, but it’s also not impossible. Do your best to eat healthy, exercise and build strength, and watch your waistline whittle down.
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