A softly rounded abdomen was all the rage way back in the Italian Renaissance, and few can look at a voluptuous Rubens painting without appreciating the lush softness of his models. But just as standards of beauty have changed, so has our understanding of what your shape says about your health.
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Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and not having washboard abs does not necessarily mean that you are unhealthy. A little extra padding is just more of you to love, but too much extra fat around your middle can mean you are headed for trouble. Diet and exercise can go a long way toward keeping you fit and in good health, as well as using a calorie counter to keep track of your eating plan.
The only way to get rid of belly fat is through a combination of diet and an exercise plan that includes both cardio and strength training as well as exercises specifically designed to target your core.
Facts About Belly Fat
Fat is created when your body takes in more calories that it uses. Every 3,500 extra calories you consume creates one pound of stored fat. This is not just your body trying to annoy you. Storing fat is a survival technique dating back to the dawn of time. Just as storing water in their humps evolved to keep camels alive when there is a lack of water, your stored fat keeps you (and any children you might be nursing if you're a woman) alive when there is no food.
Your body stores fat mostly in your belly because it's the most efficient place to store it. Storing fat in your arms and legs first would make it harder for you to move them. The extra effort expended in moving them would burn more calories, which defeats the purpose of storing the fat. Your belly is close to your center of gravity and it doesn't move independently like arms and legs do, so it is the perfect storage spot.
Types of Belly Fat
That stored belly fat is made up of types: subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous fat is basically the fat stored under your skin. This is the fat that turns into love handles and causes the soft, squishy muffin top when your jeans are too tight. A little bit of subcutaneous fat can come in handy both as insulation from the cold and as energy reserves during a sudden illness such as a high fever.
Visceral fat, the second type, exists in between and around your internal organs. Visceral fat is harder and firmer than subcutaneous and not as visible. It can lower your insulin resistance and can put you more at risk for heart attack, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
You can get rid of excess belly fat through a combination of diet and exercise, and it is not unusual to lose fat from everywhere else on your body before that belly starts to shrink.
Read more: Different Types of Belly Fat
Exercises to Get Rid of Belly Fat
Whether you are looking for exercises to lose belly fat for men or for women, keep in mind that there is no way to specifically spot reduce this area. There is also no secret method to shrink your belly by a certain number of inches in a certain amount of time. But, you can lose fat overall and tighten up your abdominal muscles. There are several ways to develop a strong and lean core, including:
- Aerobic exercises
- Weight training
- High intensity interval training
Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio, is any exercise that raises your heart rate for a sustained period of time, typically causing you to become slightly out of breath but still able to carry on a conversation. Aerobic exercise includes running, jogging, walking, swimming, taking an aerobics class or following one on DVD or other media, swimming or bicycling. You don't have to commit to a formal exercise program, though. Simply walking for one hour every day will burn off visceral belly fat, providing immediate health benefits.
Facts About Weight Training
Weight training not only makes you stronger, but building lean muscle tissue helps speed up your metabolism, which means that you will burn more calories even when at rest. Lifting weights for 30 to 45 minutes at least three times per week will help strengthen your muscles and rev up your metabolism, aiding in burning off that extra fat.
High intensity interval training is a combination of intense exercise with short recovery periods of lower-intensity training. This keeps your heart rate up and burns calories while increasing both your strength and endurance, but it isn't for everyone. If you aren't already fit, make sure you start at the beginner level.
Targeting Your Core
Crunches are one of the most popular exercises to target your core. You can also do reverse crunches where you lie on the floor, suck your navel in toward your spine and roll your knees toward your chest. Doing bicycle crunches and any exercise involving a twisting motion will work your obliques, which helps to tighten and define your waist.
Planks are an excellent way to tighten your core, and they're an especially easy exercise for beginners. Support your body weight on your hands and toes as though you are at the top of a push-up, or on your forearms and toes if this is easier for you. Keep your back flat and straight and tighten your abdominal muscles by pulling your belly button in toward your spine. Hold the pose for as long as you can while breathing normally.
You may only be able to hold it for 10 seconds or so to start. That's OK. Increase your time in 5 to 10 second increments every few days until you can easily hold the pose for at least one minute. Once you achieve that goal, you can add plank variations that focus more intensely on your obliques.
These exercises will tighten and strengthen your core but they will not specifically burn fat from your belly. Combining exercise with diet is the only way to do that.
Read more: How to Burn Visceral Fat
Best Diet for Losing Belly Fat
Along with your workouts to lose belly fat, you need to incorporate a healthy eating plan into your overall fat-loss program. Crash diets and severely restricted diets will not work. They don't provide enough calories to sustain your health while you build muscle, and they don't offer a full range of nutrients. They're also difficult to maintain because you can't make intelligent decisions about food if you're always hungry.
The first step in supporting your exercise program to reduce belly fat is to cut sugar out of your diet, according to nutrition experts at Tufts University. However, not all sugars are created equal. Refined sugar and some starchy carbohydrates are your belly's worst enemies.
Know Your Carbohydrates
There are two major types of carbohydrates in food: simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are basically just sugar. They are metabolized so quickly that they raise your insulin levels. Your body responds by sending out insulin to mop up the extra sugar. What cannot be used is stored as glycogen in your liver or your muscles, but excess sugar can also be converted to triglycerides and stored as fat. In addition, every gram of stored carbohydrates bonds with 3 to 4 grams of water, which contributes to bloating.
Complex carbohydrates are also called starches. Starches include grain products such as bread, pasta and rice. Refined grains, like white flour and white rice, are processed. This is done to achieve a finer texture and longer shelf-life, but it also removes nutrients and fiber (the indigestible part of plant foods). Unrefined grains are rich in fiber, which helps your digestive system work well.
Fiber not only slows down the absorption of sugar, it also keeps you full for longer after each meal and helps with healthy elimination. Fiber-rich foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes.
Once you remove highly processed foods from your diet, the best meal plan for healthy weight loss is one that is based on fresh vegetables, fruits, lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. This gives you a colorful, flavorful and satisfying diet that doesn't feel restricted.
Load Up on Fruits and Vegetables
You can eat your vegetables cooked or raw. Choose a variety of colorful vegetables to provide your body with a healthy mix of the nutrients you need. Steam, roast or saute your vegetables with little to no added fat when cooking.
Fruits are often forbidden on low- to no-carb diets, but your brain actually needs sugar to function. The natural sugars in fruit are metabolized a little bit slower than starchy carbs and refined sugar, so don't be afraid to include fruits into your belly fat-busting diet. Pair fruits with protein to slow that process down even more. Opt for whole fruits and vegetables rather than juicing them because juicing removes all of their dietary fiber, leaving mostly sugar behind.
Get Plenty of Lean Protein
Lean protein includes chicken, turkey, beef, pork, fish, eggs and dairy as well as plant-based protein such as tofu, beans, nuts and seeds. Protein is necessary for building muscle as well as providing the amino acids your body needs to function at its best. Cook your protein with as little added fat as possible and use seasonings to replace salt.
The Skinny on Fats
Healthy fats are necessary to a complete diet. They are also needed to keep your skin supple and your hair shiny.
Saturated fats, which come from animal products, are not healthy in large doses. They raise the level of low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, in your bloodstream. This can lead to clogged arteries which increase your risk of certain types of cancers, heart attacks or strokes, which is why LDL is known as "bad cholesterol."
Unsaturated fats, such as those found in plant-based oils, lower the level of LDL in your body and raise the levels of high-density lipoproteins, or HDL, in your bloodstream. Known as "good cholesterol," HDL removes the LDL from your bloodstream, promoting clear circulation, which allows your blood cells to more efficiently carry oxygen, water and nutrients to all your organs.
In addition, the essential fatty acids found in olive oil and fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel, contain high levels of antioxidants, which fight free radicals. Free radicals are like rust on iron or mold on wet concrete. They grow on your cells as a result of exposure to environmental pollutants and are the byproducts of your metabolic functions such as digestion and breathing. Free radicals not only increase your risk of heart attack, stroke and cancer, but they also contribute to visible signs of aging and can actually change the DNA of your cells.
Eating a well-balanced diet can go a long way toward eliminating belly fat, but the fastest way to melt it off is with a combined program of diet and exercise.
Read more: One-Week Menu to Get Rid of Belly Fat
- Wentworth Institute of Technology: Physiology of Weight Loss - Why We Have Fat
- Tufts University: Eating to Beat Belly Fat
- Rush University: Is There 'One Trick' to Losing Belly Fat?
- The Nutrition Source at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health: Vegetables and Fruits
- Diabetes.org: Types of Carbohydrates
- University of Michigan: Types of Fats
- Men's Health: How to Do the Perfect Plank
- Kids Health From Nemours: Learning About Carbohydrates
- Harvard Medical School: Sugar and the Brain
- NCBI: Free Radicals: Properties, Sources, Targets, and Their Implication in Various Diseases