On everyone's holiday wish list: a flat tummy. Although it's exceedingly unfortunate, fat loss doesn't come in a gift bag or box. You have to work for it, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet. But burning lower belly fat pays off big, not only improving your appearance but also lowering your risk of disease.
The only way to lose lower belly fat is with regular exercise and a healthy diet.
Belly Fat Basics
Belly fat isn't like fat on other areas of your body. The kind of fat around your hips and upper arms is subcutaneous fat, the kind you can "pinch an inch" of. Belly fat can be a combination of subcutaneous fat and another type of fat, called visceral fat.
Visceral fat sits deep within your abdominal cavity and surrounds your organs. While you need a little visceral fat for cushioning, too much of this fat is dangerous. It's in close proximity to the portal vein responsible for transporting blood from your intestines to your liver, and it can release substances such as free fatty acids that can travel to the liver and increase production of cholesterol. High cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease.
The good news is, according to Harvard Health Publishing, you can burn visceral fat in the same way you burn subcutaneous fat.
Burn Lower Belly Fat
Fat is stored calories. Whether in your thighs, arms or belly, it's a sign that you've been taking in too many calories and not expending enough — also known as a calorie surplus.
To lose lower belly fat, you have to turn the tables and begin consuming fewer calories than you burn each day. This will put you in a calorie deficit. Although fat loss is complicated and involves many more factors, such as genetics, you can't lose fat without this deficit.
Create a Calorie Deficit
According to the Mayo Clinic, if you create a calorie deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories a day, you can lose approximately 1 to 2 pounds of fat per week. The easiest way to create this deficit is to both reduce your calorie intake and increase your activity level.
First, figure out your daily calorie needs for weight maintenance, and then you can figure out your target calorie intake for weight loss. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, the average moderately active male between the ages of 26 and 45 needs 2,600 calories a day. For weight loss, he will need 1,600 to 2,100 calories daily.
Keep in mind that weight loss rates and calorie needs are merely estimates for the general population. Weight loss isn't a neat equation — it differs from person to person. It's not linear, meaning you may lose weight quickly at first, but then more slowly after a while. So try not to focus too much on the scale numbers but more on the healthy habits needed to burn lower belly fat.
Foods That Feed Fat
Certain foods and beverages in your diet may be directly contributing to your belly fat. Sodas and other sweetened drinks are a primary culprit. According to a 2014 cross-sectional analysis in The Journal of Nutrition, men and women who regularly drank sugar-sweetened beverages had 10 percent more visceral fat than those who didn't consume the sugary drinks.
Sugary foods are also not doing your belly fat any favors. Sugar in any form provides no nutritional benefits and a lot of calories. If you consume a good amount of sugar, as many Americans do, simply cutting sugar out of your diet can potentially get you to your target calorie deficit without exercise (although you should definitely still exercise).
In addition, fried, fatty, fast foods, snack foods, refined grain products, sweetened cereal and granola bars, and flavored yogurts are also examples of foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional benefits.
Can you just lose belly fat? No. You have to lose total body fat, some of which will come from your belly.
Foods That Burn Belly Fat
You might have read that particular foods — such as avocados and eggs — can encourage the body to burn more belly fat, specifically. It's not true. However, these foods are healthy and nutrient rich, and they provide specific nutrients that can aid in weight loss.
Fiber and protein are two of the most important nutrients for weight loss. Fiber, the part of plant foods your body can't digest, helps fill you up and slow stomach emptying so you can feel full and stay full on fewer calories. Healthy sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
According to a 2014 article in Nutrition & Metabolism, protein may encourage the release of hormones that signal satiety, and it may increase metabolism. Good protein choices include light-meat chicken, fish, eggs and beans.
Read more: 10 Ways to Reduce Body Fat Percentage Fast
How Much You Need
In a 2018 study in Nutrition, obese adults who were counseled to increase their fiber intake to 35 grams per day and their protein intake to 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day were able to reduce their calorie intake and lose weight, even though they weren't actively restricting their calories.
Those targets almost line up with the National Academy of Medicine's dietary reference intakes (DRI) for the general population; however, the DRI for fiber for women is only 25 grams per day, so women should aim to increase their fiber intakes above that.
Additionally, there might be added benefit to increasing protein intake above the DRI. According to a 2015 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, data suggest that intakes between 1.2 and 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day may have more of an impact on weight.
The Exercise Equation
Yes, it's possible to burn belly fat just by just reducing your calorie intake and not exercising, but it's a lot harder — and most people can't sustain it. Plus, exercise is good for your physical and mental health.
So what kind of exercise should you do? The best answer to that is any type of exercise you enjoy doing. The most effective form of exercise to burn lower belly fat is any type that you will do on a regular basis. Whether that is swimming, biking, dancing, running, hiking or power yoga, if you like it, do it — and do it often.
Forget the endless crunches — they won't do anything to burn the belly fat. They will strengthen your abdominal muscles, however, which you'll be able to see once you burn lower belly fat.
Cardio + Strength Training
The only caveat is that your weekly routine should include both aerobic exercise and strength training. Aerobic exercise burns calories while you're doing it, but strength training builds lean muscle mass, which increases your resting metabolism so your body burns more calories all day long. They're a winning combination for burning lower belly fat.
According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, such as running, each week. But for even more belly-fat-burning benefits, you should aim for 300 minutes of moderate intensity or 150 minutes of vigorous cardio each week.
Read more: These 12 Moves Will Get You Washboard Abs
In addition, the Physical Activity Guidelines recommends strength training all your major muscle groups twice a week. Whether you do body-weight exercises at home or you go to the gym, perform exercises that target your chest, shoulders, back, arms, core and legs. Focus on moves like squats, lunges, pushups, pull-ups and rows — compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at one time. These give you more bang for your buck and help you get more done in a shorter period of time.
- Harvard Health Publishing: Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It
- Mayo Clinic: High Cholesterol
- Precision Nutrition: Calories in vs. Out? Or Hormones? The Debate Is Finally Over. Here’s Who Won.
- Mayo Clinic: Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics
- Health.gov: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level
- Today's Dietitian: Farewell to the 3,500-Calorie Rule
- The Journal of Nutrition: Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption Is Associated With Abdominal Fat Partitioning in Healthy Adults
- Today's Dietitian: Fiber: Fiber's Link With Satiety and Weight Control
- Nutrition: A Nonrestrictive, Weight Loss Diet Focused on Fiber and Lean Protein Increase
- National Academy of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: The Role of Protein in Weight Loss and Maintenance.
- Nutrition & Metabolism: A High-Protein Diet for Reducing Body Fat: Mechanisms and Possible Caveats
- University of New Mexico: Controversies in Metabolism
- Health.gov: Physical Activity Guidelines, 2nd Edition: Chapter 4. Active Adults