Belly fat gets an extra bad rap — and for good reason. In particular, the fat that accumulates around the organs of your midsection (technically called visceral fat) is linked with increased risk of both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
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But that doesn't mean you should drop everything and do nothing but crunches all day in an attempt to get rid of it. "No matter how many abs workouts you do, body fat is reduced evenly throughout the body," says Jim White, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist and owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios.
Despite most people's fervent wishes, 'spot reducing' isn't a thing, which means you'll need to take the same balanced, holistic approach to losing belly fat you'd take take for general weight loss. Avoid these few common mistakes and you'll help your body shed fat healthfully — and trim down your midsection in the process.
Mistake 1: Doing Endless Crunches
We said it once and we'll say it again: "You cannot spot reduce fat on any part of the body," says Kasey Kotarak, certified personal trainer and coach for Fit Body Boot Camp. "Your body loses fat as a whole."
Doing abs exercises day in and day out will help strengthen your core, sure, but it won't ensure that you burn fat from that part of your body, Kotarak says.
Fix it: While you can totally incorporate core exercises into your workout routine, well-balanced workouts that involve your entire body involve more muscles and better support fat loss, White says.
Mistake 2: Getting Too Little Sleep
"Sleep is when our body repairs and rebuilds tissues," say Brittany Schneider, certified personal trainer and nutrition program coordinator at Life Time Westminster in Colorado.
And according to April 2013 research published in PNAS, insufficient sleep alone increases risk of obesity. Sacrificing sleep (even for the sake of a workout) impairs glucose metabolism, which can lead to higher blood sugar levels — a major contributor to belly fat, Schneider says.
Not to mention, lack of sleep also affects the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin, driving sugar and carb cravings, she says. In combination with that messed-up glucose metabolism, this creates a vicious cycle that feeds right into fat gain.
Fix it: Schneider recommends prioritizing seven to eight hours of quality sleep per night. (Sticking to a regular bedtime and limiting screen time in the hour for bed can help make that happen.)
Mistake 3: Not Doing HIIT
Heading out for your usual run around the neighborhood may burn calories, but it'll only get you so far if you want to shed fat, says Kotarak. HIIT (high-intensity interval training), on the other hand, can maximize the fat-loss benefits you get out of a workout in less time.
"HIIT involves intervals of high-intensity exercise that elevate the heart rate — and intervals of rest that bring it back down," Kotarak says. Because your body works at a higher intensity during those intervals, your body continues burning calories for more than 24 hours after your workout, she says.
Fix it: For best results, White recommends incorporating one to three HIIT workouts into your weekly routine.
Mistake 4: Skipping Resistance Training
Another workout must-have for fat loss: resistance training, which can include everything from push-ups to barbell squats.
"Since muscle tissue burns more calories than fat — even at rest — the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn every day," says Kotarak. Plus, like HIIT, resistance training stimulates your metabolism for more than 24 hours after your workout as your body repairs, she says.
According to July 2012 research published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, 10 weeks of resistance training can contribute to notable increases in muscle mass and metabolic rate — and decreases in visceral fat.
Fix it: If you typically stick to cardio, White recommends starting with one or two resistance training sessions per week, and increasing from there.
Mistake 5: Eating ALL the Low-Fat Foods
Despite what older generations would have you believe, opting for the low-fat versions of foods like yogurts and salad dressings is not necessarily fat-loss friendly.
"Low-fat foods usually make up for the flavor losses that go along with removing their fat by adding sugar," White says. As a result, many of these foods are more processed and contain more craving-inducing additives (like sugar and sodium) than their fat-containing counterparts.
Plus, "healthy fats actually support brain health and healthy hormone and cholesterol levels," Schneider says. They also satiate us, helping to curb hunger and cravings.
Fix it: Schneider recommends incorporating wholesome healthy fats — like avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, extra-virgin olive oil, fatty fish and egg yolks — into every meal.
Mistake 6: Ignoring Signs of Too Much Stress
Though stress can actually support fat loss in the right amounts at the right times (ex. in your HIIT workouts), it sabotages even the most consistent fat-loss efforts when uncontrolled.
One major player in stress and its impact on our waistlines: the stress hormone cortisol. Charged with prepping the body for mental and physical exertion (like exercise), cortisol raises our blood sugar so we have energy readily available.
However, if you sleep poorly, feel stressed often or over-exercise (or all three), cortisol can run rampant and have a number of negative impacts on our bodies and health, Schneider says. Chronically high cortisol levels can reduce our ability to build muscle and promote abdominal fat gain.
Fix it: To manage stress and cortisol, Schneider recommends incorporating practices like meditation, yoga and journaling into your daily routine. Making sure you meet your daily needs of vitamin C, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium can also help balance the stress response, she says.
Mistake 7: Slashing WAY Too Many Calories
"Many people believe that cutting calories really low is the answer for shedding fat," says White. "When the body is starved of energy, though, it enters a 'starvation state,' in which it holds onto any energy it's given in order to sustain itself." The end result: You make little (if any) fat-loss progress.
If you're experiencing fatigue, dizziness, headaches, shakiness, irritability, and/or cravings, you're eating too few calories, Schneider says. Making sure you aren't falling short on calories or nutrients is important for proper body function. Having enough calories throughout each day will let the body know it doesn't need to be in a starvation state by holding onto calories.
Fix it: Instead of focusing on slashing calories, plan to eat small meals that contain protein, complex carbs (like oats or sweet potatoes), healthy fats and vegetables every three to four hours, Schneider says. Eat a diet of whole foods and you'll be much less likely to overeat.
Mistake 8: Underestimating Full-Body Movements
"While isolation exercises, such as biceps curls, are great for targeting a certain muscle groups, they do not burn as many calories as total-body exercises," says Kotarak.
Total-body exercises (like deadlifts and burpees) activate and use multiple muscle groups (including your core), and therefore burn more calories, Kotarak says.
Fix it: Focus as much of your workouts as possible on exercises that involve multiple muscle groups makes for more efficient workouts and best supports your fat-loss efforts over time.
Read more: 9 Full-Body Exercises That Aren't Burpees
Mistake 9: Relying on Belly Wraps or Fat-Loss Supplements
You knew this one was coming. "There is not a single drug on the market today that is approved by the FDA to reduce belly fat," says Schneider. "There is no magic bullet."
Though 'fat-burner' or 'weight-loss' supplements may promise to support your efforts, they typically "help you drop (temporary) water weight, not real body fat," Schneider says. Same goes for belly wraps, which typically just increase how much you sweat and dehydrate you, says White.
Fix it: No product can replace exercising regularly (and including resistance training), eating balanced meals and drinking plenty of water. "If you're nailing the basics but still not losing stubborn belly fat, reach out to a nutrition professional who can help you dial in your diet," Schneider says.
Mistake 10: Not Eating Enough Protein
In addition to supporting muscle repair and growth, protein also helps curb hunger and cravings, Schneider says. So eating ample protein daily has a significant impact on your fat-loss progress.
Plus, protein plays an even more crucial role in maintaining metabolism and muscle mass after you lose that fat, according to February 2013 research published in The Journal of Nutrition.
Fix it: Schneider recommends active people aim for anywhere between one and two grams of protein per kilogram of goal body weight. (That's up to about 135 grams of protein daily for someone with a goal weight of 150 pounds.) Get there by including protein — like poultry, fish, meat, eggs, legumes, and nuts — in every meal and snack.