If you’re having trouble fastening your waistband, the extra weight in your belly that's causing the problem probably didn’t happen overnight. Americans, on average, gain weight slowly but surely – a little more than 3 pounds every four-year period, according to a long-term study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011. Heredity and hormones determine if you gain weight in the belly or hips, and how quickly you shed belly fat depends on how many pounds you have to lose. You may be able to drop as much as 2 pounds a week following a healthy diet and exercising regularly – but not all of it will come from your belly.
Subcutaneous Versus Visceral Belly Fat
Subcutaneous fat is the pinchable fat just under your skin that shows up as love handles and flab on your hips, back, tummy and thighs. It can be hard to lose, but it doesn’t pose a serious health threat unless you are overweight or obese.
The fat deep in your belly is a different beast. It's called visceral fat, and it forms behind your abdominal wall and surrounds your organs. This type of fat is biologically active, producing hormones that can put you at risk for metabolic conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. You can’t “spot reduce” any part of your body, including your belly. However, unlike pinchable fat, visceral belly fat yields pretty easily to dietary changes and a regular exercise program.
Losing Weight and Belly Fat
Like most Americans, you probably gained belly weight over time, so it will also take time to lose it. According to the general principles of weight loss, you need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound of fat. To lose weight, you’ll need to reduce your caloric intake and increase your caloric burn. It’s considered safe to trim 500 to 1,000 calories a day, for a weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds a week.
This may not be as hard as it sounds, particularly if you’ve been largely sedentary and your diet has been heavy in empty calories like soda and other refined carbs. Dropping just one 16-ounce cola from your diet every day, for example, saves you 207 calories, while opting out of the medium fries at a fast food restaurant spares you 378 calories. Thirty minutes of brisk walking burns 149 to 167 calories for the average 155-pound person.
If you consistently trim and burn 500 calories from your diet daily, you could theoretically lose 10 pounds in 2 1/2 months or 26 pounds in half a year. To double your weight loss, create a daily deficit of 1,000 calories through diet and exercise – losing 2 pounds a week could get you to 10 pounds in just five weeks. However, this rule of thumb seems to work best for short-term weight loss, according to Densie Webb, RD, writing in Today’s Dietitian in 2014. If you hit a plateau after a few months, a nutritionist or dietitian may be able to help you tweak your plan to move forward.
Whatever you do, don’t dip below 1,200 calories a day if you’re a woman or 1,800 if you’re a man. Consistently eating too few calories or burning too many may put you at risk for nutrient deficiencies and also slow your metabolism and hence your fat-loss progress.
Dietary Measures for Fat Loss
What you eat helps determine successful fat loss. Eating protein boosts your metabolism, because it takes more effort for your body to process. Protein is a satiating nutrient that helps keep you full until your next meal, and it also helps you retain lean muscle so that you mostly lose fat on your weight-loss diet. Choose quality lean proteins over fatty cuts of meat and foods high in saturated fat, like full-fat cheese. Good sources of protein include fish, poultry, beans, nuts and seeds, eggs, and soy.
Opt for healthier carbs that are high in fiber and other nutrients, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Like protein, fiber is satiating, filling you up without adding calories.
It’s a myth that cutting fat from your diet will trim fat from your body. Pay attention to the types of fat you choose, however. Unsaturated fats – found in fish, avocado, olives and olive oil, nuts and seeds – give you the fat you need to absorb nutrients, create hormones, and build healthy tissue and cells.
Exercise to Lose Fat and Build Muscle
You may think crunches and sit-ups will help you lose unwanted belly fat, but these types of spot exercises only tone muscles -- without burning fat. To trim belly fat, the American Council on Exercise recommends a regimen that combines aerobic exercise with strength training. Talk to your doctor before embarking on any new exercise program.
Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise that gets your heart pumping for five days of the week – for example, walking at a pace that makes you winded, jogging, cycling, rowing or swimming. High-intensity interval training – in which you alternate periods of aerobic activity with periods of rest – offers more benefits for belly fat loss, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
On the two days when you aren’t doing aerobic exercise, perform strength-training exercises to build muscle and lose fat. Make these non-consecutive days to give your muscles a chance to recover. You could use free weights, weight machines, or resistance bands, or take a yoga class. With weights, ACSM suggests eight to 12 repetitions of eight to 10 different exercises targeting all major muscles. Or if you choose yoga, incorporate poses such as Boat, Chair, Dolphin Plank, Downward-facing Dog, Triangle and Warrior 1 into your practice.
- New England Journal of Medicine: Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men
- Harvard Medical School: Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Finding a Balance
- USDA Nutrient Database: Foods List
- Harvard Medical School: Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights
- American College of Sports Medicine: Metabolism Is Modifiable with the Right Lifestyle Changes
- Nutrition and Metabolism: A High-Protein Diet for Reducing Body Fat
- NutritionMD.org: Understanding Fiber
- Ask Dr. Sears: Why You Need Fats
- American Council on Sports Medicine: High Intensity Interval Training