When you’re trying to slim down, a jiggly midsection is often the first thing you want to see melt away. But research shows losing belly fat is more complicated than upping the intensity of ab workouts or subjecting yourself to a fad diet.
Despite a plethora of weight-loss plans that promise to blast belly fat, “the reality is targeted weight loss does not work,” says Dr. Elizabeth A. Lowden, a bariatric endocrinologist at the Northwestern Medicine Metabolic Health & Surgical Weight Loss Center at Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois. “It is not possible to do certain exercises or eat a certain way to specifically lose weight from your arms, legs or midsection.”
That said, it’s smart to lose excess belly fat since a slimmer waistline is linked to a lower risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
WHAT IS BELLY FAT, EXACTLY?
Technically, belly fat is made of two types of fat: subcutaneous fat, which lives just under our skin, and visceral or intra-abdominal fat, which tends to wrap around and make its way into your organs, explains Dr. Lowden. Most of the time, when we’re talking about belly fat, we mean visceral fat because this is the most dangerous type of fat. It’s linked to several health concerns, including inflammation, high blood pressure, breathing problems, and — even in “skinny” people — early death. In women, excess belly fat is also associated with gallbladder disease and breast cancer.
WHY IS BELLY FAT SO BAD FOR YOU?
What makes visceral fat particularly dangerous is likely how close it is to the portal vein, which transports blood from your intestinal area to your liver. Substances released by visceral fat can travel to your liver, where they impact your body’s production of blood lipids (fatty substances in the blood), increasing “bad” cholesterol and decreasing “good” cholesterol.
Visceral fat also pumps out immune system chemicals known as cytokines, among others, which can disrupt your metabolism, blood pressure and ability to respond normally to insulin, the hormone that distributes glucose (blood sugar) to your body’s cells. “As a result, you can develop insulin resistance, a precursor to prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes,” notes Dr. Lowden.
The more excess belly fat you have, the greater the health risks tend to be: Each additional pound of fat is linked to new diagnoses of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease. However, the reverse is true, too. Even mild to moderate weight loss (Think: 3–4% of your starting weight) can significantly improve your metabolism and heart health, finds a recent study published in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation. And the good news is visceral fat is one of the easiest types of fat to lose by eating a well-balanced diet in a calorie deficit and regularly exercising.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO LOSE BELLY FAT?
First, remember: It’s impossible to target belly fat alone. However, “reaching a lower body fat percentage overall will reduce your belly fat and in turn reduce your risk of metabolic diseases,” says Dr. Lowden.
This means the go-to metric for how long it takes to safely lose weight stands for belly fat, too: “A calorie deficit of 500–1,000 calories per day tends to lead to an average weight loss of about 1–2 pounds per week,” says Dr. Lowden. That’s a healthy pace to stick with for long-term weight-loss success.
In this sense, you could begin losing belly fat right away, but it could take some time to see and feel the results. Many factors, including your age, genetics, environment and activity leve,l could also impact just how quickly you shed belly fat, research shows.
TIPS FOR BURNING FAT AND TRIMMING YOUR WAISTLINE
- Cut calories. The primary path to belly fat loss is a sustainable calorie deficit, so use a food journal or app like MyFitnessPal to set and accurately track your calorie intake.
- Measure your waist circumference. Regularly log your waist circumference by looping a tape measure around your waist just above your hip bone. The “danger zone” for negative health effects is a waist measurement of more than 35 inches (89 centimeters) for women and 40 inches (102 centimeters) for men.
- Eat a well-balanced diet. The ideal grocery list for belly fat loss is filled with high-fiber fruits, vegetables and whole grains, lean proteins like chicken and turkey, and healthy fats (choose vegetable oils over butter and lard).
- Focus on portion size. Eating meals on smaller plates and weighing your food can help you get better at recognizing portion sizes.
- Cut back on sugar. Since sugar is linked to weight gain, limit processed foods and alcohol and swap high-sugar sodas and juices for sugar-free alternatives like sparkling water. You can track your added sugar intake in MyFitnessPal to help you recognize sneaky sources such as condiments and flavored yogurts.
- Consider intermittent fasting. Limiting meals to a 10-hour eating window (such as 9am-7pm) could help support visceral fat loss, per a small 2019 study of adults living with metabolic syndrome.
- Find a form of exercise you enjoy. A wholesome, low-calorie diet combined with exercise is the best method for zapping belly fat. In particular, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts are especially great fat-burners, and weightlifting a few times a week can support lean muscle mass, which burns more calories. However, the best exercise routine is one that suits your lifestyle and can get you moving 30–60 minutes per day, whether that’s a brisk walk, bike ride or group fitness class.
- Minimize stress. Chronic stress releases cortisol, a hormone that can lead to inflammation and weight gain. Find ways to lower stress levels that work with your lifestyle, such as taking a walk in nature, practicing meditation, phoning a friend or unwinding with a hot bath.
- Prioritize quality sleep. A lack of sleep can harm blood sugar levels and trigger cravings for high-sugar foods, both of which hamper weight loss. Create a healthy bedtime routine to get a quality 7–9 hours of shut-eye each night.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“There are no shortcuts in healthy living, but visceral fat tends to respond well to healthful eating and aerobic exercise,” says Dr. Lowden. A calorie deficit of 500 calories a day usually leads to a pound a week (4 pounds a month) of weight loss — which is more sustainable than rapid weight-loss — and ultimately helps reduce your waistline. To track progress, regularly measure your waist circumference around your belly button level.
Remember, muscle is heavier than fat, so even if you’re looking and feeling leaner, it might not show on the scale, which is why it’s important to track non-scale progress, too. Notice your energy levels, how your clothes are fitting and whether you’re sleeping better or feeling a boost in mood levels. If you’re struggling to lose weight, reach out to a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian who can help tailor an individualized plan.
Make progress every day while you work on mini fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps or learning to track macros. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.