It’s a perennial struggle that many people face: how to lose that pesky belly fat? Flabby tummies don’t just bug you when you’re trying to fit into your favorite skinny jeans: Belly fat can actually be hazardous to our health.
“It’s important to reduce belly fat because this visceral fat lies in close proximity to vital organs of the body, including the kidneys, liver, and digestive organs,” says Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S, founder of Ancient Nutrition and author of the upcoming book Ancient Remedies. “This type of fat can more easily enter the bloodstream and cause health issues like clogged arteries and hypertension.”
But unfortunately, if you ask our experts, targeting belly fat is a bit of a herculean task.
“Despite what the late-night infomercials would have you believe, one cannot lose belly fat without reducing overall body fat, and the belly is one of the body’s primary fat repositories,” explains Robert Herbst, personal trainer, and 19-time world champion powerlifter.
Jeanine Duval, certified Kaivalya yoga instructor and co-founder at Edelwyn, agrees.
“The notion that spot-targeted exercises are effective is more based on hope than actual proof,” she says. “Although it would make everyone’s life easier if there was a specific exercise that would remove belly fat, in reality, it’s not so simple.”
And while it’s impossible to spot-target fat loss no matter who you are, for some, the task of reducing belly fat becomes even more difficult due to simple genetics.
“Some people will carry extra weight on their bellies, some on their thighs, hips, butt, and so on,” says Michael Julom, CrossFit athlete, ACE-certified personal trainer, and founder of ThisIsWhyImFit.com. “They will lose this last. If you’re predisposed to lose belly fat, you will do so quickly, at the beginning of your weight loss journey. If not, you will have to lose weight over your whole body in order to reduce fat around your midsection.”
But resist the urge to throw in the towel! There is hope for losing belly fat, and it lies, not in targeting the belly, but in losing fat in general.
“Overall weight loss translates to a smaller waistline in addition to a smaller number on the scale,” says MyNetDiary’s in-house registered dietitian, Johanna Kriehn.
And what’s more, according to our experts, there are a few ways to help stubborn belly fat become a worry of the past. And while you’re at it, try out any of these 15 Underrated Weight Loss Tips That Actually Work.
While a combo of diet and exercise is often praised as the secret to weight loss, according to most experts, including Matt Becher of Athletic Grit, weight loss begins “in the kitchen, not in the gym.”
“It doesn’t matter how much exercise you do,” he says, “you will never outrun a bad diet.”
The time of demonizing dietary fat has passed: Research has shown that a diet low in carbs and high in fat (think keto) can reduce abdominal fat and increase insulin sensitivity. And while you’re at it, consider increasing your protein consumption. Choose fish, lean meat, and beans, which some research has shown is associated with a lower risk of belly fat.
While it may not be trendy to talk calories, for Elliott Upton, a NASM-certified senior personal trainer at Ultimate Performance, this is an essential piece of the puzzle.
“Overall fat loss comes down to energy balance—ensuring that you are expending more calories than you consume from food and drink,” says Upton. “The ‘secret’ behind any diet is that it creates the calorie deficit needed to lose fat.”
Dietary fiber doesn’t just help you stay fuller longer, but it also contributes to improved digestion, which can reduce the appearance of bloating. Choose cruciferous vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds to up your fiber intake and reduce belly fat.
“Great foods that promote the reduction of belly fat are high in fiber and healthy fats, such as avocados, eggs, and peanut butter,” Duval says. “Their secret is that they boost your metabolism while giving you a sense of feeling full longer, helping you to avoid sugary snacks.”
As with fiber intake, salt intake can have an effect on the appearance of your belly. While cutting down on salt won’t actually diminish belly fat, it can reduce the appearance of bloat, which can make your waistline appear smaller. A nifty trick that will help you feel better about your figure as you continue to slim down.
What you eat is important, but so is when you eat. Some studies have shown that intermittent fasting can contribute to improved weight loss, not only because by shortening the window in which you eat, but you naturally cut down on calories consumed. Fasting also causes insulin levels to drop, which can lead to accelerated weight loss.
It may seem counterintuitive at first, but drinking water is the best way to keep from retaining water. When dehydrated, the body has a tendency to hold onto every drop of water it has, giving you a more bloated appearance. Drinking adequate water doesn’t just diminish this bloat; it also reduces the desire to mindlessly snack and keeps you from confusing thirst for hunger.
“Drinking water before eating can help quench your thirst and take up space in your stomach,” explains Kreihn. “When the stomach senses it is full, it sends a signal to the brain to stop eating. Water in your stomach at the start of a meal is going to help you reach a state of fullness faster and thus eat less.” Studies have shown that increasing water consumption can contribute to improved weight loss.
When you’ve had enough water, give green tea a whirl! For Jolene Caufield of Healthy Howard, a Master of Science in Professional Health Studies and Oriental Medicine specializing in healthcare, healthy living, and wellness, drinking green tea is “the best thing anybody could make a habit of helping flatten the abdomen.”
“Green tea is an age-long ayurvedic staple that’s proven to boost metabolism thereby contributing to the shedding of weight and belly fat,” she says. “It alleviates bloating and improves gut health which ultimately reduces the appearance of the belly.” Studies have shown the anti-obesity effects of the main antioxidant in green tea, EGCG, so drink up! And in fact, test panelists on The 7-Day Flat-Belly Tea Cleanse lost up to 10 pounds in one week.
Drinking water and green tea will certainly help reduce belly bloat, but cutting out booze is even better. Not only is most alcohol just empty calories (and therefore not exactly helpful for weight loss), but research has shown that alcohol consumption can increase belly fat.
Cardiovascular exercise is a great way of expending calories. For Caufield, ‘”your ticket to a core that can bounce quarters off is not crunches or sit-ups, it’s cardio.”
Burning extra calories through exercises like walking, jogging, or swimming will help slim your all-over silhouette, revealing a flatter, tauter tummy.
Other experts suggest high-intensity interval training (HIIT), a type of exercise that involves alternating high-intensity periods of exercise (like sprinting, biking, or burpees) with periods of rest (walking or light jogging). The benefits of HIIT on weight loss have helped contribute to the popularity of programs like CrossFit.
In addition to cardio, Becher recommends strength training as “by far the most effective way to lose body fat.”
“Cardiovascular training is good for losing body fat but strength training is great,” he says. “The energy required to repair and grow new muscle tissues as you sleep in addition to the energy expended during the actual workout will far exceed the number of calories burnt during and after most cardio sessions.”
“Resistance training is one of the most effective ways to change your body composition and help support fat loss,” he says. “Training your muscles makes you more insulin sensitive and helps improve nutrient partitioning, and having more lean muscle mass increases your base metabolic rate.”
Herbst recommends compound movements, like squats, lunges, bench press, and deadlifts, to help your body’s metabolism improve, thus allowing you to burn calories—and fat—even at rest.
It’s easy for you to confuse tiredness with hunger, and mindless snacking is one way you can pack on serious pounds.
“Not getting enough sleep is a risk factor for weight gain,” says Kreihn. “The theory being that when you are sleep deprived you don’t have the energy to exercise and decreased sleep has also been associated with increased appetite. Together a heightened appetite and less movement are a recipe for weight gain.”
Becher notes that sleep is also essential for rebuilding muscles after strength training.
“This is due to the fact that the vast majority of muscle growth will happen as you sleep,” he says. “If you don’t get enough sleep, your muscles won’t have time to grow. If your muscles don’t have time to grow, they won’t have time to burn fat either.”
Upton agrees, noting that lack of sleep puts you at a higher risk of weight gain or weight regain after weight loss. He recommends setting a regular bedtime routine and sticking to it, controlling your sleep environment, and avoiding blue light exposure (we’re looking at you, smartphones!) for a few hours before bed to maximize sleep quality.
Not only can stress make you snacky, but stress hormones like cortisol can make weight loss physiologically more difficult, says Axe. Try to take time to relax with yoga or meditation to reduce your body’s production of these hormones and contribute to improved weight loss.
You can crunch until the cows come home. But if that’s all you do, you’ll just have very firm abs beneath a layer of fat. But if you combine ab work with the above techniques, when you finally do lose the fat, you’ll have a surprise waiting for you.
“It will give you core strength,” says Herbst, “and when you finally lose your belly fat, they will be revealed like jewels when the sand blows away.”