It's common for women to struggle with lower abdominal fat, a small fatty deposit located in the abdomen for fertility purposes and ovary cushioning and protection; however, the upper abdomen can carry excess fat, too. Belly fat in the upper abs often comes from visceral fat, which actually lies beneath your abdominal wall and pushes out your abs. This type of fat is especially dangerous, but it responds to diet and exercise modifications that help improve your physique and health.
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Cut Calories to Banish Belly Fat
Good news -- upper belly fat caused by visceral fat deposits is relatively easy to lose, since it's the first fat you'll burn when you start to lose weight. If you're also carrying some excess subcutaneous fat -- the under-the-skin fat -- that may take longer to go away, but diet and exercise can help you get there. You'll lose subcutaneous fat from all over your body when you diet, so your legs, arms and hips will get slimmer along with your stomach.
Start your fat loss journey by planning a calorie intake that creates a 500- to 1,000-calorie deficit. That will allow you to lose 1 to 2 pounds each week, so you can lose your upper belly fat at a slow and steady, sustainable pace. Your energy needs -- and therefore how much calories you'll need to eat to get your calorie deficit -- depend on your activity and body size.
For example, a 45-year-old woman who is 5-foot-8-inches tall, weighs 170 pounds, and lives an inactive lifestyle needs 2,000 to maintain her weight. She could aim for a weight loss of 1 pound per week and achieve it by eating 1,500 calories daily. Trying for a 1,000-calorie deficit through diet alone cuts her calorie intake to just 1,000 calories daily, which is too low and could trigger a semi-starvation state that makes it difficult to lose fat. Instead, she should cut her calorie intake to 1,500 calories and burn 500 calories through exercise; this combination creates a 1,000-calorie deficit that allow for 2 pounds of weight loss weekly.
Use an online calculator to figure out your needs and make a calorie plan that's sustainable for long-term weight loss, making sure it includes at least 1,200 calories a day to prevent your metabolism from slowing into starvation mode.
Focus on Calcium, Protein and Fiber
Shedding upper-stomach fat requires eating healthy -- including good-for-you unsaturated fats, lean sources of protein, lots of produce and healthful whole grains in your diet. Focus on three key substances in food -- fiber, protein and calcium -- for the most impact on weight loss.
Protein, which is found in nuts, lean poultry, fish, legumes, eggs and nonfat dairy, burns more calories through digestion than other nutrients, so eating protein-rich foods increases your metabolism during the day. It's also satisfying, so foods and snacks containing protein will keep you feeling full.
Fiber offers similar satiety benefits as protein, and it helps control your blood sugar levels, preventing blood glucose crashes that contribute to hunger pangs. One 2015 study printed in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that just following a high-fiber diet is enough to induce significant weight loss. Get fiber from diet staples like vegetables, fruits, nuts and whole grains, as well as legumes, lentils and beans.
You're likely most familiar with calcium's benefits for bone health, but it's helpful for fat loss, too. A high calcium intake is linked to lower visceral fat levels in women, explains Harvard Medical School. Keep your diet calcium-friendly by getting the nutrient from green vegetables like broccoli, plus nonfat dairy.
Up Your Intensity to Burn Fat
Any physical activity that gets your heart pumping burns calories and helps you lose weight, but don't feel obligated to stay in the "fat-burning" heart rate zone on the treadmill or elliptical machine. While doing so may seem like the best way to lose weight, the "fat-burning" label for this heart rate zone indicates that a greater proportion of calories you burn comes from fat; you're not actually burning more fat or calories overall.
In fact, increasing your intensity so your heart rate is above the "fat-burning" zone is more effective for losing stomach fat, according to a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2009. The researchers found that obese women who exercised at a high intensity lost significantly more abdominal fat over the 16-week study period than women who exercised at a lower intensity or not at all. In addition, the study authors found no difference in fat loss between the low-intensity exercisers and non-exercisers, indicating that lower-intensity work isn't ideal when you want to banish stomach fat.
Working at a high intensity doesn't mean you should push yourself to the point of feeling faint; this is dangerous, not to mention it makes your workouts miserable. Instead, work to the point that you're not able to easily carry on a conversation, and take small steps to increase your exercise intensity, for example, going up one level of resistance on the elliptical, or upping the incline on your treadmill by one degree while maintaining your regular pace.
Lift Weights to Shrink Stomach Fat
The weight room can feel intimidating, especially for women, but including strength training in your workout is a great way to get a flat stomach. Building muscle increases your metabolism, because your body has to "spend" more calories maintaining muscle than fat, and it strengthens your bones so you can stay active and healthy as you age. One study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2007, reported that lifting weights twice weekly was enough to prevent fat gain -- and specifically belly fat gain -- in postmenopausal women.
Burn calories as you lift weights by performing movements that work several large muscles -- like deadlifts and kettlebell swings -- and structuring your workouts into circuits, so you move right from one exercise to the next without a lengthy rest in between.
- Harvard Medical School: Taking Aim at Belly Fat
- Baylor College of Medicine: Adult Energy Needs Calculator
- Linus Pauling Institute: Calcium
- Harvard Medical School: Making One Change — Getting More Fiber — Can Help With Weight Loss
- Harvard Medical School: Protein, Carbs, and Weight Loss
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Effect Of Exercise Training Intensity On Abdominal Visceral Fat And Body Composition
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Strength Training and Adiposity In Premenopausal Women: Strong, Healthy, and Empowered Study