8 Effective Ways to Lose Belly Fat and Improve Your Health

Losing belly fat is a common weight loss goal many people share. However, belly fat can be difficult to get rid of. While everyone has some fat on their abdomen, excessive belly fat is a serious health concern that increases the risk of developing serious chronic health conditions. For this reason, losing belly fat has significant benefits that go beyond looking trimmer in the mirror; it helps to improve your overall health and well-being.

Why is Belly Fat Harmful?

There are two types of body fat: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat lies just under the skin, where it can be seen and felt. For most people, subcutaneous fat makes up about 90% of their total body fat. The other 10% is visceral fat, also called intra-abdominal fat. This type of fat is located deep beneath the abdominal wall, surrounding the liver, intestines, and other organs. It’s also stored in the omentum, which is a large flat area of adipose tissue that lies under the abdominal muscles. Too much of either kind of fat isn’t good for your health, but visceral fat has been found to play a key role in many health conditions.

Body fat was once thought to be storage for fat cells that were waiting to be used for energy. More recently, research has shown that fat cells (especially visceral fat) work similarly to the endocrine system, secreting hormones and other bioactive molecules that affect tissues throughout the body. Whereas subcutaneous fat releases a higher proportion of beneficial molecules, visceral fat releases more molecules that can have serious health effects. For example, visceral fat produces more cytokines, a type of protein that can trigger low-level inflammation associated with heart disease and other chronic conditions.

Other health concerns and conditions associated with visceral fat include:

  • An increased risk of strokes and heart attacks
  • Higher total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower HDL (good cholesterol)
  • Insulin resistance
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Breast and colorectal cancer
  • Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Fatty liver

What Causes Belly Fat?

If you eat too many calories and don’t get enough physical activity, your body will begin to store fat; because of genetics, some people store fat on their lower bodies, while others store it in their belly.

Aging also affects how and where fat is stored. After menopause, women are more likely to develop more visceral fat in the belly, even if they don’t put on weight. This is because the loss of estrogen during perimenopause and menopause can change the way fat is distributed throughout the body. Age and genetics also play a role in how men develop and store visceral fat. As men age, testosterone levels begin to drop, which contributes to a loss of muscle mass and increased abdominal fat. In addition, men are more likely to have more belly fat if they drink alcohol.

Why is Belly Fat Hard to Lose?

There are several reasons why belly fat is hard to lose; one of them is that fat provides a quick source of energy for the body, so it naturally tends to hold on to it. Stress can also be a factor. When under stress, the body releases cortisol (known as the “fight-or-flight hormone”), which contributes to weight gain and more fat in the midsection. Belly fat is associated with increased insulin resistance, which also makes it more difficult to lose both visceral and subcutaneous fat.

Another reason is that there are more fat cells present in the abdominal area, and they don’t respond to lipolysis (the body’s process of breaking down fat) the same way as fats in other areas of the body. The foods you eat also play a role. Many processed foods are high in calories and contain trans fats, which can cause inflammation and weight gain. Processed foods also tend to be high in sugar, which contributes to a higher caloric intake.

How do I know if I Have Visceral Fat?

Subcutaneous fat is easy to see and identify, but how do you know if you have visceral fat? One of the best ways to check is to measure your waistline at your navel. Stand naturally while measuring, and don’t suck in your belly. A waist circumference of 35 inches or more in women and 40 inches or more in men is considered a sign of visceral fat. Keeping an eye on your waistline by how your clothes fit can also help give you an idea of whether you’re gaining visceral fat.

Tips for Getting Rid of Belly Fat

Despite claims you might see on TV or the internet, it’s impossible to target belly fat specifically through exercise or diet. The good news, though, is that losing weight overall will help you lose both visceral and subcutaneous fat. Here are some proven tips to help shed inches from your waistline:

1. Avoid sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages

Many studies have shown that eating too much sugar is harmful to metabolic health and can lead to visceral fat storage around the abdomen and liver. Table sugar is made up of two types of simple sugars called glucose and fructose. If you eat a lot of it, the liver gets overloaded with fructose, so it turns it into fat.

Liquid sugar is particularly harmful because the brain doesn’t register liquid calories in the same way as solid calories. As a result, sugary beverages make it easier to ingest more calories than the body needs. Solid sugars should be eaten sparingly, while sugary beverages (soda, fruit juice, and high-sugar sports drinks) should be eliminated from your diet. Keep in mind that many processed foods—even those marketed as healthy—can contain high amounts of sugar. Make sure to read labels, so you know how much sugar foods contain.

Don’t avoid whole fruits, however. Even though these contain fructose, fresh fruit is high in fiber and has many other nutritional benefits that outweigh the negative effects of their sugar content.

2. Cut Your Carbs

Numerous studies have shown that reducing carb intake is a very effective way to lose belly fat. Low-carb diets focus not only on reducing carb intake but also replacing simple carbs (like refined sugar) with complex carbs, like vegetables and whole grains. Simple carbs are low in fiber, high in sugar, and are digested quicker than complex carbs. In contrast, complex carbs are high in fiber and low in sugar, which helps you feel more satisfied after eating and stay fuller for longer. Low-carb diets have been shown to successfully reduce visceral fat even without calorie restriction.

3. Eat More Protein

Adding more protein to your diet can help you lose weight and may even prevent you from regaining it. Research has shown protein can reduce food cravings by 60% and boost metabolism; it’s also very effective in reducing belly fat. This is partly because protein digests slower than carbs, which helps you feel full for longer. Digesting protein also uses more calories than digesting simple carbs and fat. Some good sources of protein include:

  • Fatty fish, like salmon, bluefin tuna, herring, or mackerel. Fatty fish also contains omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower stress hormones and inflammation.
  • Poultry, like chicken or turkey
  • Beans
  • Greek yogurt
  • Nuts
  • Whole eggs

A good target for weight loss is to get 25-30% of your daily calories from protein. Protein supplements, like whey protein, can also be a healthy way to increase your intake.

4. Eat More Fiber-Rich Foods

Eating fiber-rich foods can aid weight loss, but some types of fiber are more beneficial to weight loss than others. Soluble and viscous fiber appear to have more of an effect on weight than insoluble fiber, as they bind with water to create a thick gel that helps to slow the movement of food through the digestive system. In turn, this creates a feeling of being full for longer and reduces appetite. One five-year study found people who ate 10 grams of soluble fiber daily had a 3.7% reduction of abdominal fat.

To increase your fiber intake, make sure to eat plenty of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole oats. Fiber supplements may also help, but be sure to discuss it with your health care provider before introducing it (or any supplement) into your diet.

5. Reduce Stress

Stress triggers the release of cortisol, which stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism to give your body the surge of energy it needs to address the stressor. Increased cortisol levels also increase appetite—as well as cravings for quick-energy foods that contain sugar, salt, and fat. Over time, chronic stress can contribute to weight gain and other health issues.

Everyone has stress from time to time, but how you handle it can impact your health, especially if your coping mechanism is stress-eating. Instead of turning to food, find healthier ways to reduce stress, like exercise, meditation, controlled breathing, relaxing hobbies, or spending time with friends and family.

6. Get Enough Sleep

Being short on sleep can affect your weight, especially if it happens regularly. When you’re tired, you’re less likely to exercise and more likely to make unhealthy choices, like drinking a large sugary latte or eating quick, processed meals. Too little sleep also triggers cortisol levels to spike, which in turn causes your body to conserve energy while you’re awake.

Research backs up the link between sleep and weight. In one study, dieters cut back on how many hours they slept over a two-week period. The amount of weight they lost from fat dropped by 55%, even though they were continuing to eat the same amount of calories. Study participants also reported feeling fatigued, hungrier, and less satisfied after meals. In another study, people who slept 6-7 hours a night gained less visceral fat than those who slept less than 5 hours or more than 8 hours per night.

7. Exercise Regularly

Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health. However, the type of exercise you do also matters; spot training with abdominal exercises won’t help reduce visceral fat. Instead, focus on getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise 6 days a week. You can jog, use an elliptical, or even walk—as long as the activity is brisk enough to make you work up a sweat and breathe harder.

Moderate activity can help slow down how much visceral fat you gain, but it also provides other health benefits, such as lowering stress, strengthening your heart, and reducing insulin resistance. Combining cardio with resistance training or weight lifting can make your workouts more effective, as can adding in core strengthening exercises to improve abdominal muscle tone.

8. Keep Track of Your Food Intake

What you eat is important, but many people don’t know exactly what they’re eating when it comes to things like calories, fat, sugar, and protein. For example, a person may think they’re on a low-carb diet, but without tracking meals, it can be easy to underestimate (or overestimate) their food intake or the macros they’re actually eating.

You don’t necessarily need to weigh and track everything you eat; you might find that tracking your intake every day for a week or so helps you identify unhealthy food choices or other habits you can change. Meal planning can also be very beneficial for keeping you on track with certain goals, like increasing your protein intake, reducing carbs, or cutting calories.

Get Additional Support with a Medical Weight Loss Plan

Belly fat can be stubborn, and unfortunately, there are no quick solutions to get rid of it. Weight loss requires effort, commitment, and perseverance. Fortunately, making healthy lifestyle changes, like eating a healthy diet, reducing stress, exercising, and getting enough sleep are all highly effective ways to help you lose weight while improving your overall health and well-being.

Lifestyle changes can feel overwhelming, so it may be beneficial to work on one step at a time and add on more changes as you go. If you’re not sure where to start or you’d like additional support on your weight loss journey, a medical weight loss plan can help. Dr. Jennifer Hubert offers personalized weight loss plans that take a holistic approach to your health and weight loss challenges. Over the years, Dr. Hubert’s weight loss programs helped numerous patients develop sustainable, healthy habits that help them lose weight and keep it off. For more information, contact Dr. Hubert’s office to schedule a consultation.