Weight Loss

How To Lose Belly Fat: The Ultimate Guide – Backed By Science

How to get rid of belly fat is a question that we get a lot here at Bodyhappiness.com.  It’s a complex topic with no simple answer, as everyBODY is different. The most effective way to combat belly fat most likely lies in a combination of a few different lifestyle changes.  

Why have I gained weight around my belly and not as much in other areas? | Belly Fat – The Basics | How to Lose Belly Fat – 6 Pillars Backed by Science | FAQs on Belly Fat

As with any weight loss or health issue, it is important to remember that everyBODY is different. The reason we don’t all look the same is because our genetic make up is different. 

The same goes for our genetic makeup on the inside. Our bodies all beat to a different drum and one person’s fuel may be another person’s poison. This is one reason why some people experience more fat around the belly than others, and why others might have an easier time getting rid of it. 

In this article we’ll explain what belly fat is, why it can be dangerous, and we’ll offer our suggestions to help you get rid of it. 

Is there a quick fix? Not really. As with most weight loss and health improvement issues it requires a lifestyle change, but it’s worth it and we’re here to help you along the way.

Image of colorful salad on a blue plate.
Image by Brooke Lark via Unsplash

Why have I gained weight around my belly and not as much in other areas?

Where you store body fat is mostly genetically determined. Many women, especially those in their 40s, find that when they hit perimenopause (the years leading up to menopause) they gain fat around their middle, even if it’s an area where they haven’t been prone to weight gain before. 

The bad news is that it’s not possible to pinpoint a body part to lose fat. That is a myth. You can work on toning certain areas with weight training exercises, but fat loss cannot be targeted to a specific area, it is something that happens all over the body. 

By following our suggestions below, you will be doing your best to achieve even weight loss all over your body, thereby tackling the problem of stagnant belly fat. Let’s get started shall we?

Belly fat – The Basics

Two of the main types of fat in our bodies are visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. When we take in more calories than we burn, we gain both subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. 

It is important to know the difference between these two types of fat, as one can be more harmful to your health than you think (1) . Whilst our bodies need some fat in order to function properly, a lot of excess fat isn’t a good thing. The image below shows the difference between the types of fat we store.

Subcutaneous Fat

Subcutaneous fat lies beneath the surface of the skin, can be somewhat dimply in appearance and is soft to the touch or ‘pinchable’. For most people, it makes up about 90% of the fat.

Visceral Fat

Visceral fat makes up the remaining 10% of fat in most bodies, and it is not visible. This type of fat is stored behind the abdominal wall in the spaces around the organs.

You can have too much visceral fat even if you’re at a healthy weight. Unfortunately, the only way to know is with an MRI or CT scan which is costly and not accessible to most people. 

Visceral fat is easy to gain, easy to lose but more harmful to your health than subcutaneous fat. Excess visceral fat can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even some cancers (2)

Just as with any other excess fat on your body, you can burn visceral fat by being in a calorie deficit.

We covered calorie deficit extensively in this article on Weight Loss Diets if you’d like to read more about it. ‘Calorie deficit’ means that you consume fewer calories than you burn through movement and exercise. 

How to Lose Belly Fat – 6 Pillars Backed by Science

Now that you are familiar with the types of belly fat and how they can impact your health, let’s have a look at how to lose it. We have identified six ways that we feel are most effective to help you lose it, and keep it off.

1. Follow a Healthy Diet

A poor diet is one of the main drivers of excess belly fat. This is probably the easiest thing to change in theory, but often the hardest to change in reality. 

Following healthy eating habits can make achieving a calorie deficit easier by default, as you’re automatically eating lower calorie, higher nutrient foods. This boosts your overall health and is a step towards losing that stubborn belly fat.

Considering that the most harmful foods, those that lead to belly fat, are the ones we should be limiting anyway, it seems like a no-brainer to cut those out. However, with the abundance of choice we are offered in today’s world, fueled by all the targeted advertising, it is easier said than done. 

The most dangerous foods that should be limited are those loaded with sugar and empty carbs. These are often found in processed and convenience foods. A diet based on muffins or donuts for breakfast, pizza for lunch and take out for dinner has very little to offer in terms of fiber, protein, healthy fats, and nutrients.

Instead fill your plate with fresh produce, lean animal proteins, nuts and whole grains. Limit your red meat consumption, and be aware of sugars and chemicals found in processed foods.  

Cutting out sugar and processed foods also automatically reduces your carbohydrate intake, which has also been known to have a positive effect on the reduction of belly fat. So it’s a win-win!

Image of a colorful salad.

Don’t forget about calories in drinks either, they’re easy to overlook but they count too! It’s not just alcohol which you need to watch (we cover alcohol more below in point 4), but sodas, coffee creamers, and even fruit juices are high in calories. Seek out other options, such as flavored seltzers, or dilute your fruit juices to cut the sugar in half. 

A simple way to go grocery shopping with this in mind, is to shop the perimeter of the store. Have you ever noticed how most grocery stores have the produce section at the entrance, and the meat, dairy and other ‘fresh’ foods around the perimeter of the store? What’s the majority of food found in the middle aisles? Boxes and packages of factory made foods. These are the ones you want to limit your intake of. Shop the perimeter for most of your groceries and you’ll be on the right track!

For further information on what to eat and what not to eat please refer to our articles on The 30 Day Weight Loss Challenge, How to Lose Weight, and The 20 Best Foods for Successful Weight Loss

What to do:

  • AVOID: Processed foods, baked goods, sodas and low nutrient carbs containing sugar, chemicals and empty calories.
  • EAT MORE: Fresh vegetables, lean animal protein, nuts and whole grains.

2. Increase your Physical Activity Level

Physical activity comes hand in hand with a healthy diet in terms of combating belly fat. Belly fat loves inactivity, and a sedentary lifestyle is its accomplice. Switching your eating habits alone will do little to decrease belly fat. To successfully lose belly fat, physical activity should be combined with a healthy diet. 

Increased activity levels will increase caloric output, leading to a calorie deficit and fat loss. What type of exercise is most effective to beat belly fat? Anything that gets the heart pumping, also known as cardio or aerobic exercise. This includes brisk walking, running, cardio classes, biking, dancing – whatever you enjoy that gets you moving! 

Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise at a moderate intensity, five days a week. This type of exercise helps your liver use the nearby fat stores for energy, encouraging the body to use up calories for energy rather than storing them as fat. (3)

For further inspiration, please refer to our 30 Day Weight Loss Challenge where you’ll find some great exercises to get you started!

What to do:

  • Get Active! Move more 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week. 

3. Reduce your Stress Level

When we’re stressed, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol encourages fat cells to be stored around the internal organs. Studies have shown that women who are susceptible to stress have higher cortisol levels and more belly fat than other women (4)

Reducing your stress levels can decrease your cortisol levels and help prevent the accumulation of visceral fat. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, walks outdoors, and spending time with friends and loved ones are great ways to keep stress levels down. 

Some good resources for meditation or other techniques such as breathing can be found online, or search your podcasts! 

Image by Tim Goedhart via Unsplash

If you have trouble finding time to yourself, start by committing 15 minutes a day to YOU. Whether it’s walking the dog whilst listening to a podcast, attending a yoga class, or connecting with a friend whilst having a coffee, these methods will help you decompress and can rebalance your stress levels.

What do to:

  • Set aside a little bit of time every day for YOU.
  • Try meditation apps, yoga classes or podcasts to get you started. 

4. Limit Your Alcohol Intake 

A bit of alcohol from time to time is not a bad thing, and studies show that the occasional glass of red wine might even be good for you. But excessive alcohol consumption can increase belly fat because when you drink it, the body burns the alcohol, using it as fuel, instead of the other nutrients that you consume (5)

It’s also easy to consume far more calories in alcohol without being aware of exactly how many calories you are taking in. The average alcoholic drink contains 100-150 calories, and on a night out it’s easy to consume upwards of 500 calories in drinks alone. This is equivalent to a meal! If you factor in that there’s usually a lot of food being eaten in these situations, you end up with quite a calorie surplus.

If you’re thinking, “I’m supposed to cut back on all the ‘fun’ foods, exercise AND cut back on alcohol too? That sounds hard…”  Yes it is, it’s not easy, but it’s worth it, and so are you!

We have a few tips to help you reduce your alcohol intake: 

  • If you’re a beer drinker, opt for a low calorie light beer, there are many good ones on the market right now. 
  • If you’re a wine drinker, make your white wine or rosé a spritzer by topping off your half-full glass with seltzer.
  • If you’re into cocktails, the calories are in the sugary mixers, so top up your glass with a fruit flavored seltzer instead of soda.
  • For all of the above, try to reduce your usual consumption of alcohol. A great way to start is to have a glass of water between drinks.

If you find you’re really struggling to cut back on your alcohol consumption regularly, please seek help with a friend or health professional, or contact your nearest Alcoholics Anonymous Program. 

What to do:

  • Cut back on alcoholic drinks by substituting them with non alcoholic, or low alcohol, options.
  • Alternate water between alcoholic drinks.
  • Be mindful of the calorie content of your drinks. 

5. Cut Out Trans Fats

You may have noticed that with unhealthy foods and alcohol we’re suggesting you reduce your consumption. Well, with trans fats we’re urging you to CUT OUT their consumption.

Trans fatty acids, especially artificial ones, are bad news and you’re not doing yourself any favors by eating them. This harmful type of fat increases the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. (6) 

Trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated fats, are chemically altered unsaturated fats used in processed foods in order to prolong shelf life (7). They’re widely used in factory foods as they are cheap to produce. Governments are being made more aware of the harmful effects of trans fats and are placing limits on the quantities used in the production of food.

In the US, manufacturers can label their products “trans fat free” as long as there is less than 0.5 gram of trans fats per serving. This can be misleading because the nutrition label can state that the product in question (let’s use a bag of chips as an example) contains 4 servings. So really, a bag of chips could contain nearly 2 grams of trans fats, but due to labeling loopholes, it can still be labeled as trans fat free. Sneaky, huh?

What to do

  • The best way to cut out trans fats is to avoid processed foods as much as you can.
  • Aim for fresh produce, leafy greens and lean protein instead. 

6. Sleep

Sleep is as vital to human life as water and food are. Sleep is necessary to allow the body to rest and heal. But if we could get a little more sleep, could we lose belly fat too? That sounds too good to be true! Well it is true, indirectly.

Image by Brett Jordan via Unsplash

It’s a vicious circle – Poor sleep can lead to increased risk of obesity (8) and being overweight can be a reason for interrupted sleep. Here are a few examples of how a lack of sleep can affect the way your body responds to food and food temptations:

  • It can wreak havoc on your hormones. It can cause a spike in cortisol which signals your body to save energy for when you’re awake, meaning that your body clings on to the fat it has for later. It also upsets your levels of ghrelin, a hormone which signals hunger to the brain, and leptin, which signals satiety to the brain. (9) 
  • It can affect your level of self-control, even for food (10). You’re more likely to reach for a high carbohydrate, sugary comfort food when you’re tired, than for a salad. 
  • A lack of sleep can also affect your motivation to exercise, and if you are exercising, then it could affect your performance and endurance too. 

What to do:

  • Get your zzz’s! Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep a night. 
  • If you have trouble falling asleep, try a calming or meditation app to relax you.
  • Avoid screens for the last hour before bedtime and try to read a book instead. 
  • Do some gentle stretching before bed time.

Some FAQs on Belly Fat:

Is there one quick fix to get rid of belly fat?

No, unfortunately not! Responsible, safe and healthy weight loss takes time. By combining a healthy diet with regular exercise, you are on the right path to losing fat all over your body, and likely your belly too.

My mom carries a lot of fat around her belly, does that mean I will get it too?

Some people are more genetically predisposed to hold weight around their abdomen. If your mother was ‘apple-shaped’, with most of her weight around the belly, there is a chance that you will be too. However, you have the tools in this article to get ahead of the problem!

Can’t I just do sit ups everyday to get rid of my belly fat?

Targeted abdominal exercises, such as sit-ups, can tighten stomach muscles, but won’t fight the belly fat alone. You need to pair exercise with a healthy diet in your lifestyle, to most effectively reduce belly fat.

I read that if a woman has a belly measurement (around the navel) of more than 35 inches (40 inches for a man) then she has a higher level of visceral fat. Is this a reliable measurement?

This ‘trick’ to measure visceral fat should be used as a guideline only. Everyone is different in build and fat distribution, so it is not to be used as a rule. 

I don’t have belly fat, does that mean I don’t have visceral fat either?

No! It is entirely possible that you have visceral fat even if you don’t have belly fat. Visceral fat hides behind the abdominal wall as is not visible. 

Should I get surgery to get rid of my belly fat?

We would never recommend surgery or liposuction to remove belly fat. Whilst this may be a solution for some, and medically necessary for others, we believe in a healthy lifestyle.

Surgery also doesn’t guarantee permanent weight loss. One would still have to follow a maintenance diet in order to keep off the weight that was removed. 

Person eating salad.
Image by Louis Eclipx Hansel via Unsplash

Having read this article, you may recognize a few areas in your lifestyle that can be addressed in order to fight belly fat. Overall, the most effective way to fight it is to lead a healthy lifestyle, maintain a healthy weight, and enjoy treats in moderation. 

To read more about weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight, please have a look at some of our most recent articles on these topics.  Should you have any questions please feel free to drop me a line at kirsty@bodyhappiness.com, I’d love to hear from you!

This article has been nutritionally verified by Beth Weiner MPH, RDN

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