So you've made progress and lost some weight, but now you face the most frustrating part of weight loss: losing the last little bit of belly fat. You know it takes a low-calorie diet and committed exercise to drop belly fat, yet those strategies don't seem to be working any longer.
Unfortunately, subcutaneous fat — the pinchable stuff that tends to linger once you're lean — is far more challenging to lose than deep visceral fat. To lose the last bit of belly fat, you'll need to be even more committed to diet and exercise.
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But don't stress. Keep reading to find out exactly what you need to reach your goals.
Losing Stubborn Belly Fat 101
If your midsection measures too large — greater than 35 inches for people assigned female at birth (AFAB) or 40 inches for those assigned male at birth (AMAB) — it's imperative you make dietary and exercise changes to reduce your risk of chronic disease, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But when you've dropped substantial weight with smaller portions, healthier food choices and a minimum of 250 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per week, you may want to go the distance — to get a flat belly, maybe even a six-pack.
The thing is, if you've reached that healthy weight you had in mind, the last bit of belly fat is just a cosmetic issue, according to the Mayo Clinic. Subcutaneous fat is not as metabolically active as the deep visceral fat that you've successfully lost. In turn, killing subcutaneous fat is more difficult, often requiring a higher-intensity exercise program and stringent diet to prompt weight loss.
1. Scrutinize Your Calorie Intake
As you lose weight, your metabolism adapts and slows down because it's supporting a smaller body, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). To lose the last bit of belly fat, you'll probably have to reduce your calorie intake further. Use an online calculator like the MyPlate Calorie Counter app or talk to a dietitian to figure out a new appropriate calorie intake target.
"I would need to know this person's current caloric intake and if they have reached a plateau with weight loss," says Jim White, RD, ACSM, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist. "If they've reached a plateau, and their caloric intake isn't low for their gender and body size, I'd consider dropping calories. Since the person is at a healthy weight, closer to a 200-calorie daily deficit could more efficiently aid in fat loss while still preserving lean muscle mass."
White advises against going over a daily 500-calorie deficit per day because a big reduction in calories will likely slow the metabolism even more. Increasing metabolism is the goal here.
And remember that when you do continue to lose weight, you can't designate where you lose it. You may want to lose the last bit of belly fat, but you may see your thighs and arms become thinner instead.
2. Tweak Your Nutrition
Although it's not set in stone, White agrees that body fat percentage ranges for revealing a six-pack are around 14 to 20 percent for people AFAB and 6 to 13 percent for people AMAB. So, you'll need to invoke greater dietary diligence to get close to these numbers. Remember, subcutaneous fat is stubborn!
"Depending on this individual's exercise regimen, I'd consider upping protein intake, while slightly decreasing carbohydrate intake," says White. "Any increase in protein should be matched by an equivalent decrease in carbs, fat or both. I'd be quicker to recommend a decrease in carbs, especially if the client chooses to focus more on anaerobic training than aerobic training."
White also suggests that you eat more often and at smaller portions to keep metabolism high, as research shows that total daily energy expenditure (calorie burn) from dietary-induced thermogenesis can range from 10 to 35 percent. More frequent meals at smaller portions will better keep you in the upper end of that range.
And don't stop doing what you've already been doing! Keep choosing quality, nutritious foods like lean meats and fish, fruits and veggies, whole grains and healthy fats, and avoid trans fats, added sugars and refined carbs like white pasta and white rice when possible, per the CDC. And of course, make sure you're tracking those calories.
3. Exercise More Intensely and Often
You know those 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio — recommended by the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans — that you're probably already getting throughout the week? Well, that's not going to help you lose that subcutaneous belly fat, so it's time to change things up a bit and raise that metabolic burn.
White says that 70 to 85 percent of total daily energy expenditure occurs during rest, and that 80 to 90 percent of calories burned at rest are fat calories. Because you're looking to burn subcutaneous abdominal fat, you should be trying to raise your resting metabolism as much as possible. And because muscle burns more calories than fat, you should start focusing on building and strengthening your overall muscle mass through anaerobic resistance training (HIIT and strength training), which will in turn boost your metabolism.
"The client should focus on aerobic training that does not keep their heart rate at a near maximal level for too long. Anything too high for a prolonged period will result in too much carbohydrate and muscle loss, diminishing their overall fat-burning efforts", says White. "HIIT exercises should prove most effective. Once at a healthy weight, switching their focus more to strength training with HIIT aerobic training will allow the client to step it up without overdoing it, especially when they follow the above dietary recommendations."
4. Get Enough Sleep
Believe it or not, if you hit the sack early enough and get enough shut-eye, you could be helping with the little belly bulge.
Sleep deprivation is found to increase belly fat accumulation, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Researchers have found that people sleeping fewer than 5 hours at night tend to gain more belly fat over several years.
What's more, an August 2014 review in Annals of Medicine links sleep deficits to increased food consumption, decreased total calorie burn and changes in appetite-regulating hormones levels.
Not to mention, if you don't get enough sleep, how are you going to have enough energy to strength-train and do intense interval training?
5. Tame Your Stress
This is a great time to also strengthen your mental health by learning how to chill out. Stressing is a belly fat culprit, as studies have shown the close association of increased cortisol levels and deep abdominal fat deposits, per The American Institute of Stress. And high cortisol levels, oftentimes, leave you turning to unhealthy food choices for comfort.
Meditation, yoga, physical activity, journaling, getting enough sleep (see above!), listening to music, being creative and going to counseling are all fantastic ways to help manage the stress in your life, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Centers of Disease Control and Prevention: "Assessing Your Weight"
- Mayo Clinic: "Belly Fat in Women: Taking — and Keeping — It Off"
- National Library of Medicine: "Metabolic Consequences Of Weight Reduction"
- Jim White, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist
- Centers of Disease Control and Prevention: Healthy Eating for a Healthy Weight
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: "Chapter 4: Active Adults"
- National Sleep Foundation: "Diet and Exercise and Sleep"
- Annals of Medicine: "Sleep Debt and Obesity"
- The American Institute of Stress: "Stress, Cortisol and Abdominal Fat
- Mayo Clinic: "Stress Relievers: Tips to Tame Stress"