Magazine articles and fitness gadgets promise to help you lose your love handles with crunches, side bends and twists. The reality is that you can't target this extra fat with belly-busting moves. You must adopt a comprehensive weight-management program based on dietary changes and total body exercise to address the visceral fat. The fat that makes up love handles penetrates deep into your belly, but, like other belly fat, is responsive to classic weight-loss efforts.
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The Anatomy of Love Handles
"Love handles," a "muffin top," "middle-age spread" or a "spare tire" are all euphemisms for the visceral fat that expands your belly and spills over your waistband. Unlike subcutaneous fat, which lies under the skin on your hips, buttocks, thighs and arms, visceral fat sits deep inside your body and contributes to significant health risks, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and, in women, breast cancer. This visceral fat causes your belly to expand in the front, sides and back of your midsection. It's metabolically active and releases compounds that increase your risk of disease. Having too much belly fat can pose almost as much risk to your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes per day, Dr. Lopez Jimenez told Forbes in 2012.
Love handles can appear at any age because of a processed-food diet and lack of exercise. Men are especially susceptible to developing belly fat, but women tend to gain more of it around menopause, when hormones alter the way fat is stored.
Reduce Calories to Lose Love Handles
Because visceral fat is metabolically active, it breaks down faster than subcutaneous fat. It responds well to cutting calories and moving more. To lose a pound, you must burn 3,500 calories more than you consume. In a week, you can lose a pound or two if you create a 500- to 1,000-calorie deficit per day. Roughly determine your daily calorie burn by using an online calculator that takes into account your age, activity level, size, gender and age, or consult a dietitian. Then, subtract the 500 to 1,000 calories from your burn rate to come up with a goal intake to lose weight.
A diet of less than 1,200 calories daily is often nutritionally insufficient and too low to sustain for any period of time. If the results of your calorie calculations reveal that you must eat fewer than 1,200 calories per day to meet your goal, either revise your planned daily deficit to lose weight more slowly or increase activity to raise your burn rate. Add a 30-minute brisk walk most days, fidget more when you sit and add extra movement, such as pacing while you're on the phone or parking farther away. Some of the weight you lose first when you add any exercise is visceral fat.
Foods to Avoid to Lose Love Handles
Avoid consuming refined grains, sugar and foods high in saturated fat, and you'll trim calories expediently. Refined grains and sugar, especially sugary drinks, provide little in the way of nutrition but add a lot of calories to your diet. A study published in Obesity in 2012 concluded that frequent intake of sugar-sweetened beverages correlates with higher levels of visceral fat.
Another study, published in a 2010 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that increased consumption of refined grains associated with higher visceral fat levels, while increased consumption of whole grains associated with lower levels. Cut out white bread, pasta, soda, baked treats, snack mixes, chips, candy and syrups, and your calorie intake will reduce.
Full-fat dairy and fatty cuts of meat, like brisket or full-fat milk, are sources of saturated fat. A study published in a 2014 issue of Diabetes showed that overeating saturated fat -- but not polyunsaturated fats found in sources like sunflower seeds and fatty fish -- encourages the accumulation of belly fat.
Eat Whole Foods Instead
The calories you do eat should come from whole foods, such as lean meats, fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains and low-fat dairy. Breakfasts might consist of eggs with whole-grain toast and an apple; a whole-wheat English muffin with peanut butter and banana; low-fat plain yogurt topped with berries and almonds; or scrambled egg whites wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla with low-fat cheese, salsa and avocado slices.
A serving of protein low in saturated fat, such as tuna, salmon, trimmed flank steak, skinless poultry, tofu or tempeh, served with salad greens or other watery vegetables makes for a love handle-busting lunch or dinner. Have a small portion of whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa or barley on the side. For snacks and dessert, stick to a piece of fresh fruit, a cup of berries, low-fat cheese with whole-grain crackers or low-fat cottage cheese with grapes.
Use lemon juice or vinegar with olive oil for dressing; add flavor to meats or vegetables with fresh herbs; and plan on fruit for desserts. A food scale and measuring cups help make sure your portions don't cause you to exceed your calorie goals.