There are tons of reasons fat accumulates around our midsections — poor diet, too much alcohol, not enough exercise, chronic stress, pregnancy — but really only one way to lose it: a combination of proper nutrition and a balanced workout routine.
While you can't specifically target and eliminate belly fat, a few tweaks to your eating and exercise habits will help you drop body fat all over, eventually resulting in a tighter, trimmer midsection. Learn more about the type of belly fat you're dealing with (yes, there's more than one) and how you can start to whittle your waistline.
The Science of Belly Fat
The fat in your midsection is actually composed of two types. Subcutaneous fat is the visible layer close to the surface of your skin (the so-called "pinch an inch" type), while visceral fat lies deeper inside your abdomen, surrounding your organs, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Although subcutaneous fat is the type people often focus on trying to get rid of, it's not quite as concerning as visceral fat. That's because visceral fat has been linked with chronic health conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol, per the Mayo Clinic.
In addition to excess fat, you may also notice some loose stomach skin, especially if you've already lost some belly fat. But you probably don't need to stress too much about it, because usually, this skin will retract as you continue to lose weight. (Though in some cases, particularly if you've lost a lot of weight or lost it in a short amount of time, the extra skin may need to be surgically removed.)
However, losing the belly fat is probably the most challenging part of the process. But if you follow these guidelines and stay consistent (and patient), you'll begin to see the results you want.
1. Adjust Your Food Intake
The number one rule of fat loss is creating a calorie deficit, meaning you burn more calories than you consume, according to the Mayo Clinic. Creating a realistic and sustainable deficit, though, requires first establishing how many calories you need eat each day to maintain your current weight.
You can estimate this value by tracking your food intake for a few days. Assuming you don't gain or lose weight, this number is your baseline. Your other option is to calculate the number of calories you need with a calorie-tracking app like MyPlate.
From there, you can safely cut between 500 to 1,000 calories each day to create your deficit. Although you may feel inclined to trim more, remember that a slower weight loss (one to two pounds per week) will help you maintain your weight in the long run, according to the Mayo Clinic. Plus, taking it slowly will help you stick with healthy habits (more on that below).
2. Clean Up Your Diet
In addition to the number of calories you consume, the type of foods you eat each day can make your weight-loss efforts more effective (not to mention, improving your overall health). For starters, minimizing the amount of highly processed foods you eat is an easy way to reduce your caloric intake and improve the nutrient value of your diet. Chips, sodas, cookies and other processed snacks are usually high in calories but low in nutritional benefits.
Instead, focus on filling your meals with plenty of fiber-dense vegetables. Fiber — the real weight-loss MVP — is a type of carbohydrate that helps control your blood sugar levels, ultimately helping you feel full for longer, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, whole grains are also a good source of fiber and antioxidants, including B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium and iron, according to the Whole Grains Council.
Prioritizing lean protein sources is another way to reduce your overall calories, while getting the nutrients you need to feel healthy and strong. Low-fat dairy, poultry and lean cuts of beef are all great options, per Harvard Health Publishing. (Lentils, beans, pease and some soy products if you're a vegetarian.)
3. Include Cardio and Strength Training in Your Workout Routine
Now for the other side of the equation: calories burned. Doing more physical activity is a great way to increase your total calorie expenditure. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (walking, hiking, swimming) or 75 minutes of intense activity (running, HIIT, cycling) each week, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
And adding strength training helps improve your body composition (ratio of fat to muscle), according to Carolina Araujo, certified personal trainer.
Building muscle mass boosts your metabolism (the rate at which your body burns calories doing day-to-day activities), according to Harvard Health Publishing, so by introducing weight training, you can start to burn more calories each day.
Try These 4 Exercises to Strengthen Your Abs
Although you cant spot-reduce fat, you can strengthen specific areas of your body to improve the overall look and function of your midsection. Incorporating some more core-focused exercises into your strength-training routine is a great way to sculpt your abs. Araujo recommends giving these moves a try:
1. Low Plank
- Lie face down on the floor, with your forearms on the ground, elbows directly beneath your shoulders.
- Extend your legs straight behind you, toes tucked.
- With your core braced, press into your toes and forearms and raise your body up off the ground.
- Keep your back flat and your body in a straight line from head to hips to heels.
- Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
2. Forearm Side Plank
- Start lying on your side, propped up on your bottom forearm. Your elbow should be directly under your shoulder to avoid putting too much pressure on the joint. Your legs should be extended straight out with your feet stacked one on top of the other.
- Lift your hips off the ground. Make sure that your hips are squared forward. Keep your body as straight as possible from heels to hips to head.
- Hold this position for as long as you can with good form (aim for 15 to 30 seconds).
3. Bicycle Crunch
- Start lying flat on your back with your hands behind your head. Contract your lower abs to raise your legs a few inches off the ground.
- Twist your torso and bend your left knee so that your right elbow crosses your body and reaches toward your left knee.
- Switch and twist to the other side so that your left elbow reaches toward your bent right knee.
- Keep alternating sides without tucking your chin toward your chest.
4. Goblet Squat
- Hold a heavy dumbbell by one end at chest-height.
- Begin with your feet just wider than hip-width apart. (Toes can face forward or turn out slightly.)
- Keeping your chest tall and core tight, hinge your hips back and down to sink into a squat so your upper legs are parallel with the floor (or as low as you can comfortably go with good form).
- Press through all four corners of your feet to return to standing.
- Mayo Clinic: "Belly Fat in Women: Taking — and Keeping — It Off"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to the Weight-Loss Basics"
- Mayo Clinic: "Why do Doctors Recommend a Slow Rate of Weight Loss? What's Wrong With Wast Weight Loss?"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Fiber"
- Whole Grains Council: "Whole Grains 101"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Protein Sources That are Best for Your Heart"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Much Physical Activity do Adults Need?"
- Harvard Health Pushing: "The Truth About Metabolism"