Carrying a few extra pounds on your midsection is common — more than half of Americans have a waist size that's larger than normal, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in Sept. 2014. That doesn't mean you're stuck with side stomach fat forever, though. Lowering your calorie intake, making a few diet tweaks and getting more active will help you burn that fat and get the physique you want.
Burning excess side fat, AKA "love handles," depends on your willingness to choose healthy, nutrient-rich foods and exercise enough so that your body has to burn stored fat as fuel.
Reduce Your Calorie Intake
Stomach side fat — sometimes called love handles — is subcutaneous fat, located just under the skin. However, the rounded sides of the abdomen may be partially caused by excess visceral fat pushing out against your abdominal wall. Visceral fat is the type of metabolically active fat that accumulates deep in your midsection, surrounding your organs and increasing your risk of disease. It's impossible to lose weight from just one part of your body, so to lose stomach side fat, you'll have to lower your body fat levels overall. That requires eating fewer calories than you burn.
Estimate your calorie needs either by consulting a nutrition professional or by using an online calculator. Then subtract 500 to 1,000 calories to get a calorie intake that will allow you to lose weight. If you cut 500 calories daily, you'll lose 1 pound a week; cut 1,000 and you'll lose 2.
Just make sure your new calorie deficit doesn't take your calorie intake too low: Men shouldn't go below 1,500 calories daily, and women shouldn't eat fewer than 1,200, according to Harvard Health Publishing. (Some sources say that men shouldn't eat less than 1,800 calories daily.) Anything less than that and you face a higher risk of nutrient deficiencies, and your body might go into "starvation mode" and lower your metabolism to hold on to fat.
Make Healthy Food Substitutions
Make sure the calories you get each day are from quality foods — this helps ensure you meet your nutritional needs as you lose weight, so you can look and feel your best. Harvard Medical School recommends a few food substitutions to switch out unhealthy foods for more nutritious options to help you lose abdominal fat.
Use whole grains — such as quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal and 100-percent whole-wheat bread and pasta — instead of refined grains, like white rice, white bread and white pasta. Whole grains are higher in fiber, a nutrient that's linked to weight loss. Because fiber also plays a role in satiety, switching from white to whole grains means your meals will be more satisfying, so you're less likely to overeat later.
Go for unsaturated fats — like those found in fatty fish, seeds and nuts — instead of saturated fats found in red meat and processed foods to lose fat, recommends Harvard. Making this substitution means you'll have to avoid calorie-laden fast and processed foods, which will make it easier to meet your calorie goals.
Add Fruits and Veggies
Fruits and veggies are staples on diets for good reason — these foods are high in weight-loss-friendly fiber and relatively low in calories. They also have a low energy density — which means they have fewer calories per gram of food — thanks to their high water content. Foods with low energy density can help you lose weight because you feel more satisfied on fewer calories.
Start your lunches and dinners with a small green salad to help fill you up, snack on a piece of fruit or a handful of berries between meals to keep you satisfied, and serve higher-calorie foods — like grains, fish or lean poultry — with a large serving of raw, steamed, grilled or roasted veggies to boost your meal size without adding lots of calories.
Working Out for Stomach Fat
Fat on your midsection also responds to exercise. Perform moderate-intensity cardio — which might be a brisk walk, a jog, or a bike around the neighborhood — for 2.5 hours each week to benefit your health and help you burn more calories, and do strength training twice a week to keep your muscles strong and healthy. Doing more cardio helps further boost your calorie burn for the day, which promotes fat loss.
Tone your sides with exercises that work your abdominal and oblique muscles, like side planks, wood chops and Russian twists. While these exercises don't burn side stomach fat — you need cardio to do that — they'll help tone your midsection, so you'll have lean and fit-looking abs once you lose weight.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calorie Counting Made Easy"
- Harvard Medical School: "Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It"
- Annals of Internal Medicine: "Single-Component Versus Multicomponent Dietary Goals for the Metabolic Syndrome"
- Penn State University: "Low-Energy-Dense Foods and Weight Management: Cutting Calories While Controlling Hunger"
- Journal of the American Medical Association: "Trends in Mean Waist Circumference and Abdominal Obesity Among US Adults, 1999-2012"