It's no secret that Americans are fighting the battle of the bulge, but you can even carry too much body fat if you're skinny. This phenomenon, sometimes called "skinny fat" or normal weight obesity, usually occurs in thin people who aren't physically active. Even if you have a healthy body weight according to the body mass index, that excess fat can cause health problems and affect the way you look. You can lose belly fat even if you're already skinny, but it'll require some changes to your diet and exercise routine.
Examine Your Calorie Sources
If you're skinny, you likely don't need to cut calories -- the goal is to change your body composition to reduce your body fat and increase lean muscle, not to lose weight overall. But you'll want to take a look at where your calories are coming from. Determine whether they are from whole, unprocessed and nutritious foods or from convenient "junk" food. Take an honest look at your diet habits by keeping a food diary for at least a week. Look at how many calories you're eating, and figure out where you can make improvements. Pay particular attention to your intake of alcohol and foods containing trans fats, like margarine, cookies, crackers and fried foods. These are among the worst foods for triggering belly fat accumulation, according to Palm Beach State University.
Make Dietary Changes to Burn Belly Fat
Once you've looked at your diet patterns and figured out your current calorie intake -- which will let you maintain your overall weight -- take steps to swap out processed foods for healthier versions. If you currently enjoy a beer or two at the end of the night, for example, try a wine spritzer or a lighter, lower-calorie beer, or share your draft so you're not having a full pint. If you love snacking on crackers, many of which contain trans fat, opt for a whole-grain, trans fat-free version -- or satisfy your craving for crunch with carrot sticks and sliced red pepper. Ditch trans fat-laden margarine in sandwiches or on toast, and instead use avocado puree, which contains healthy fats.
Include fruits or vegetables at each meal, and make lean protein a key part of your diet -- think white-meat poultry, lentils, eggs, low-fat dairy, beans, fish and tofu. These foods are low in unhealthy saturated fat and free of trans fat. They also supply amino acids you'll need to build muscle.
Exercise for a Toned Belly
Normal-weight obesity often develops due to a sedentary lifestyle, according to the University of Hawaii, so boost your activity level to burn off belly fat. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise weekly, recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A brisk walk, a jog around your neighborhood, a water aerobics class or cycling all count toward your weekly exercise.
You should also strength-train two to three times each week. Strength training helps you build muscle tissue, which boosts your metabolism to help you burn more calories and fat each day, and it also helps you look more toned. Work your upper body and abs with pushups, inverted rows, planks and wood chops, and tone your lower body with lunges, squats, dead-lifts and step-ups. A personal trainer can help you pick the best exercises to meet your goals -- and the right weight to use to get muscle-building results.
Manage Your Stress to Lose Belly Fat
Living a high-stress lifestyle, without taking time to manage your stress levels, can make you gain belly fat. High levels of stress increase your levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that contributes to belly fat accumulation. Cortisol signals for your body to move fat from existing fat stores into fat deep in your abdomen. Those deep abdominal fat stores push your belly out -- giving you a "beer belly"-type appearance -- and also secrete inflammatory compounds that raise your risk of heart disease. Stress also increases your appetite, so you're more likely to go off your diet and overeat.
Manage stress by taking time each day to stretch, practice yoga or breathe deeply. Exercise works as a natural stress reliever, too, so sticking to your workout routine will help you maintain a lower stress level.
Other Lifestyle Changes
While your body should respond to diet and exercise changes to burn off belly fat, getting lean may require other lifestyle changes and sacrifices. Expect to make a time commitment to your fitness. To look fit, you'll need to make enough time in your schedule for quality sleep, spend time planning your meals for the week and make time for consistent workouts at the gym. Those seeking a very lean, "six-pack" physique might need to make additional sacrifices -- your exercise program might eat into your social life or take away time from other hobbies, and you might find it difficult to eat in social situations and still stick to your diet. Choose the right mix of healthy habits and time investment that help you live the healthiest, happiest life possible, and set realistic goals you'll be able to stick to for long-term success.