The secret to getting rid of belly fat is eating less, moving more and sleeping enough — but that's not much of a secret. By looking at research, however, you can determine the real secrets that lie within those generalized statements.
Abdominal fat is a problem not because of the way it looks, but because of the risks it poses to your health. Subcutaneous fat is the type that's just under your skin — the kind you can pinch — while visceral fat is deep within your belly, according to Harvard Medical School. Subcutaneous fat might be what you want to get rid of before bathing suit season, but visceral fat is the real enemy. It increases the chance of you getting cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and other diseases.
To lose belly fat, you need to not only cut calories but a specific type of calorie — simple carbohydrates in the form of added sugar. You need to exercise, but it's best to do a specific form of exercise: high-intensity interval training. Finally, you need to sleep more — but to do that, you need to decrease your overall stress levels to fight the fat-forming hormone cortisol.
It's understandable if you want fast results. But instead of aiming to lose belly fat in two weeks, for example, aim to make these three bigger lifestyle changes that can help you lose the fat and keep it off.
1. Cut Carbs Instead of Fat
Calorie restriction is a known way to lose weight, but often dieters focus on cutting back on fat. A trick to lose belly fat, however, might be to curb carbohydrate consumption instead. Two studies published in January 2015 in The Journal of Nutrition found that people who consumed a low-carbohydrate diet instead of a low-fat diet lost more abdominal fat, as well as lost more fat overall.
It's not a good idea, however, to eliminate all carbohydrates from your diet, as it's your body's main source of fuel, according to the Mayo Clinic. Carbs occur naturally in a bevy of foods, including grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and legumes. If you cut the number of carbs you eat, the Mayo Clinic states, you lower insulin levels, which causes the body to burn stored fat and leads to weight loss.
However, drastically cutting back can lead to both short- and long-term negative health effects. At first, you might experience headaches, weakness, fatigue, muscle cramps and constipation or diarrhea. If you eat too few carbs for too long, notes the Mayo Clinic, you risk vitamin and mineral deficiencies, bone loss and gastrointestinal problems.
A better option is to cut the carbohydrates that aren't high in nutrients and have a profound effect on your blood sugar, such as sodas, candy, baked goods, ice cream and anything with a significant amount of added sugar. Instead, keep the carbohydrates that do more good than harm; the Cleveland Clinic recommends incorporating beans and legumes into your diet, as well as certain whole grains, such as quinoa.
2. Try Interval Training
Diet is vital to losing belly fat, but exercise matters, too. A study published in February 2019 in BMC Public Health assigned postmenopausal women to one of three groups: a calorie-restricted diet group, a calorie-restricted diet plus intensive exercise group, or a control group. Although the calorie-restricted diet group lost weight, the group assigned to both a diet and exercise regime lost more weight. The researchers also noted that both groups reduced both subcutaneous and intra-abdominal fat, but only the diet and exercise group lost a significant amount of subcutaneous fat.
If you're specifically looking for exercises to lose belly fat, don't turn to crunches or sit-ups. Instead, try high-intensity interval training. HIIT refers to the practice of alternating periods of brief speed and intensity with recovery intervals, according to the American Council on Exercise. For example, you might hop on a stationary bike and pedal at full speed at a moderately high resistance for 60 seconds, leisurely cycle at a slower pace and lighter resistance for 90 seconds, then repeat those cycles for 20 to 30 minutes.
A review of studies published in February 2018 in Sports Medicine determined that HIIT is successful in reducing abdominal fat, including visceral fat. Researchers indicated that running might be more effective than cycling, but noted that more research is needed to know what is most beneficial.
3. Reduce Your Stress Levels
Stress, sleep and belly fat are all intertwined — if you're under a lot of stress, you probably don't get enough sleep each night. If you don't get enough sleep, you might gain visceral fat in your belly. Therefore, a trick to lose belly fat is to lower your stress levels enough to ensure you're getting the National Sleep Foundation's recommended amount of seven to nine hours a night for adults. The American Heart Association recommends curbing your stress levels by participating in activities you enjoy, such as meeting a friend for coffee, and engaging in positive self-talk instead of focusing on the negative.
Research shows that not getting enough sleep is linked to accumulation of visceral fat in your belly. A study performed on nearly 300 participants and published in May 2014 in Obesity determined that people who slept less than six hours a day (as well as those who slept more than nine hours a day) gained significantly more than visceral fat than those who slept for seven to eight hours.
Of course, stress isn't the only reason you're not sleeping. If you've taken measures to lower your stress levels and you're still not catching enough shut-eye, look into other causes. According to Harvard Health Publishing, these causes could include sleep apnea — also linked to weight — depression and poor sleep habits.
Additionally, stress can promote belly fat in ways other than lost sleep. According to the American Institute of Stress, the main stress hormone, cortisol, is linked to increased abdominal fat. When your levels of cortisol rise, abdominal fat may follow. Additionally, when you're stressed, you're more likely to reach for unhealthy foods that will contribute to belly fat. Take steps to lower your stress and you may see your waistline improve.
- The Journal of Nutrition: "A Lower-Carbohydrate, Higher-Fat Diet Reduces Abdominal and Intermuscular Fat and Increases Insulin Sensitivity in Adults at Risk of Type 2 Diabetes"
- Mayo Clinic: "Low-Carb Diet: Can It Help You Lose Weight?"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Cutting Carbs? Don’t Say ‘No’ to These Starchy Foods"
- BMC Public Health: "Effect of Diet With or Without Exercise on Abdominal Fat in Postmenopausal Women — A Randomised Trial"
- Sports Medicine: "Effect of High-Intensity Interval Training on Total, Abdominal and Visceral Fat Mass: A Meta Analysis"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Fat and What To Do About It"
- American Council on Exercise: "High-Intensity Interval Training"
- National Sleep Foundation: "How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?"
- Obesity: "Change in Sleep Duration and Visceral Fat Accumulation Over Six Years in Adults"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "8 Reasons Why You're Not Sleeping"
- The American Institute of Stress: "Stress, Cortisol and Abdominal Fat"
- American Heart Association: "3 Tips to Manage Stress"