There are plenty of get-fit-quick schemes that promise to get rid of that pesky weight around your middle. They sound great in theory — washboard abs in six weeks? Yes, please — but they're often based in myths about belly fat that just aren't true.
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Here, we clear up the confusion to help you better understand the foe you're facing — and how to get rid of it for good.
1. Myth: It's Just Like Any Other Type of Body Fat
Actually, it's much more dangerous. It even has its own name: visceral fat (versus subcutaneous fat, which is the pinchable fat found elsewhere on the body).
Visceral fat (aka "hard fat") isn't just responsible for padding your middle and making it tough to button your jeans. It's found between your internal organs and has been linked to all sorts of health issues, including insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and breast cancer among women, according to Harvard Health Publishing. It's also connected to colorectal cancer, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and premature death, per the Mayo Clinic.
So how do you know if your belly fat is in the danger zone? Measure around your stomach, just above the hip bone. According to the Mayo Clinic, a waist size of more than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women is a sign of unhealthy belly fat.
2. Myth: Ab Exercises Target Belly Fat
Wouldn't it be great if knocking out 100 crunches a day guaranteed a flat stomach? Unfortunately, that's not exactly how it works.
You can't effectively spot-reduce belly fat, Peter Jenkins, a certified personal trainer and director of fitness at Blink Fitness in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com. But, "you can actively train and develop your abdominal muscles so that as your overall fat levels decrease, your muscle tone will become more visible," he says.
So dedicating gym time to core exercises isn't a waste. It'll definitely tighten your ab muscles and strengthen your middle — but you'll have to reduce your body fat overall in order for those results to become visible.
3. Myth: Cardio Is the Best Way to Lose Belly Fat
Since crunches won't get the job done, is cardio the best approach? Sort of — just make sure you're incorporating intervals versus steady-state cardio, such as jogging or biking at a consistent pace.
These type of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts have been shown to reduce that stubborn fat in your midsection. Jenkins says the reason is simple: "HIIT is more demanding and it burns more energy during a given period of time than aerobic exercise," he says.
Plus, it seems to affect belly fat specifically. A study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in September 2019 compared the effects of 30 to 60 seconds of high-intensity exercise (followed by one to five minutes at a low intensity, for a total of four to eight intervals) and moderate-intensity continuous training on body fat percentage and belly fat percentage, among other markers. The researchers found that the HIIT group lost more belly fat and more body fat overall.
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But you don't want to just turn into a HIIT machine — you should aim to incorporate resistance training too, in order to build strength and, in turn, boost your metabolism.
"Lean muscle mass is an active tissue — as opposed to fat — and requires a caloric expenditure to be maintained," Jenkins says. "This means that having more muscle and less fat equates to a higher resting metabolism."
According to a July/August 2012 study published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, adding about 2 pounds of muscle can raise your resting metabolic rate by about 20 calories per day.
4. Myth: Certain Foods or Drinks Can 'Melt' Belly Fat
You know those articles about specific foods and drinks that "melt" belly fat? Consider them clickbait. "There is not one specific food or drink that might 'melt' belly fat," says Katheryn Scauzzo, RD, LD, CPT, a dietitian and fitness lead with PALM Health.
But there are a few healthy-eating guidelines that could help. The Mediterranean diet — which prioritizes eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats — has been shown to reduce belly fat more effectively than a low-fat diet, according to a study published August 2019 in the Journal of Hepatology.
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Foods that are high in fiber (such as fruit, oats, nuts and whole grains) especially have been shown to decrease visceral fat levels, according to a study published April 2015 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Specifically, increasing your soluble fiber intake by 10 grams per day decreases belly fat by nearly 4 percent, according to a February 2012 study in Obesity.
On the flip side, there are definitely foods to avoid if you're looking to slim down. Scauzzo says to watch out for processed foods or foods with added processed sugars, as these can increase belly fat. "These types of foods typically have a higher glycemic index and have higher calories," she says.
5. Myth: Waist Trainers Are an Effective Way to Get Rid of Belly Fat
Despite what many celebs and social media influencers would have you believe, wearing a waist trainer — or a constricting garment designed to morph your middle into an hourglass shape — isn't a good idea.
"When you review the supposed 'benefits' of using devices like these — for example, instantly slimming, weight loss through decreased appetite and postural improvement — you've got to ask yourself whether these claims are realistic, consistent and actually healthy," Jenkins says. "Decreased appetite due to having your stomach squeezed tightly? No, thanks."
According to the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, the issue isn't just that these waist trainers are likely to be uncomfortable. They can have more serious side effects, too, such as pushing organs into unnatural positions, fracturing your ribs and depriving your body of oxygen.
And though you may be able to achieve that hourglass shape while the waist trainer is on, there's no way to maintain it forever. When you take it off, your body will revert back to its natural shape.
6. Myth: Poor Diet and Inactivity Are the Only Contributors to Belly Fat
Diet and exercise are certainly two pieces of the puzzle, but they're not the only factors. Four others include:
Sleep: Getting enough shut-eye may help you make better food choices during the day. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a lack of sleep can lead to overeating because levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin rise and levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin fall when you're not well rested.
Plus, a study published May 2014 in Obesity found sleeping between seven and eight hours each day led to lower visceral fat gains than sleeping for more or less time.
Genetics: Your genes play a part in where you store fat, according to the Mayo Clinic, so you may be more prone to adding padding at your waistline.
Stress: When you're stressed, your body pumps out more of the hormone cortisol. That's a problem, because elevated cortisol levels can lead to more fat in the midsection, according to The American Institute of Stress.
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Abdominal Fat and What to do About It”
- Mayo Clinic: “Belly Fat in Men: Why Weight Loss Matters”
- Mayo Clinic: “Belly Fat in Women: Taking — and Keeping — It Off”
- Mayo Clinic Proceedings: “High-Intensity Interval Training in Cardiac Rehabilitation: Impact on Fat Mass in Patients With Myocardial Infarction”
- Current Sports Medicine Report: “Resistance Training is Medicine: Effects of Strength Training on Health”
- Journal of Hepatology: “The Beneficial Effects of Mediterranean Diet Over Low-Fat Diet May be Mediated by Decreasing Hepatic Fat Content”
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “MRI-determined Total Volumes of Visceral and Subcutaneous Abdominal and Trunk Adipose Tissue are Differentially and Sex-Dependently Associated with Patterns of Estimated Usual Nutrient Intake in a Northern German Population”
- Mayo Clinic: “Mediterranean Diet: A Heart-Healthy Eating Plan”
- Obesity: “Lifestyle Factors and 5-Year Abdominal Fat Accumulation in a Minority Cohort: The IRAS Family Study”
- American Board of Cosmetic Surgery: “4 Reasons to Throw Your Waist Trainer in the Trash”
- National Sleep Foundation: “The Connection Between Sleep and Overeating”
- Obesity: “Change in Sleep Duration and Visceral Fat Accumulation Over 6 Years in Adults”
- The American Institute of Stress