Many people look for quick fixes for belly fat — a special diet or workout program that will make what took months or years to put on go away in weeks. Unfortunately, there's no magic trick for getting a flat stomach. You have to stick to a healthy diet and exercise regularly, and eventually, you will lose the belly fat.
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How long it will take you to lose belly fat depends on how diligent you are with diet and exercise and how much fat you have to lose.
Belly Fat Basics
Belly fat is tricky. It's not the type of fat you find in other areas of your body — the type you can grab between two fingers and "pinch an inch." That's the subcutaneous fat that sits right below the skin.
Visceral fat is the primary type of fat in the belly. It sits deep in the abdominal cavity, surrounding your organs. While you need some visceral fat to cushion your organs, too much of it is detrimental to your health, increasing your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
The good news is that visceral fat responds well to exercise and diet, reports Harvard Health Publishing. The bad news — well, not really bad, but probably not what you want to hear — is that you can't target just your belly for fat loss. When you reduce your calorie intake, eat more healthy foods and increase your activity level, you will lose fat. However, that fat may first come from your face, arms, thighs and butt before you see noticeable differences in your tummy.
This has a lot to do with genetics and body type. Your body is programmed to hold onto fat in certain places. For some people — those with "pear-shaped" bodies — fat is more likely to build up around the hips and thighs; for others with "apple-shaped" bodies, fat collects around the waist and belly.
Your body doesn't want to let that fat go — it has evolved as safety in case of famine — and it's not going to give it up without a fight. That's why it's difficult to put a time stamp on how long it will take you to get a flat tummy. But if you're patient and you put in the work, it will happen.
The Fat-Loss Equation
As yet, researchers haven't figured out exactly how fat loss works. The general idea is that there are a certain number of calories in a pound of fat — 3,500 is the current best guess, according to Mayo Clinic. Theoretically, it takes an excess of 3,500 calories in your diet to put on a pound of fat and a deficit of 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat.
By this theory, if you created a calorie deficit of 1,000 calories per day — by eating less and exercising more — you could lose 2 pounds of fat per week, approximately 8 pounds per month and 96 pounds of fat per year. While you still couldn't predict from where you'd lose that fat first, you could predict that by six weeks from now, you'd be 12 pounds of fat lighter.
Unfortunately, fat loss doesn't occur by following such a neat schedule. According to Densie Webb, Ph.D., R.D., it isn't a linear equation. Webb says that although it might be accurate at first, fat-loss rates change as you lose weight — often slowing, sometimes plateauing. Trying to predict fat loss only leads to disappointment and discouragement, advises Webb.
Creating a Caloric Deficit
Lots of factors are at play in fat loss — genetics, hormones, medical conditions and medications, and even psychology — but the general theory is that eating more calories than you burn leads to weight gain, and eating fewer calories than you burn leads to weight loss.
Therefore, you need to create a caloric deficit to start burning the belly fat. For example, if you cut 500 calories from your daily diet and burn 500 calories through exercise each day, you'd create a weekly deficit of 7,000 calories. The deeper the calorie deficit you create, the quicker you'll burn fat and start to see your belly flatten out.
But you don't want to go overboard. You need enough calories to maintain a high level of energy to be active, and you need to eat enough of the right foods to avoid nutrient deficiencies and other ill health effects.
First Stop: Sugar
The quicker you can ditch sugar, the quicker you will lose your belly. Sugary desserts and candy, baked goods, sugary cereals, and especially soda and other sweetened beverages are low in nutrients and high in calories. Sugar-laden foods are one of the leading causes of obesity in the U.S.
A 2014 cross-sectional analysis in The Journal of Nutrition analyzed data from 2,596 adults and found that those who regularly consumed sugar-sweetened beverages had a 10 percent higher visceral fat volume than non-consumers.
Johns Hopkins Medicine has some tips for avoiding the sweet stuff:
- Don't drink soda or other sweetened beverages. Fruit juice — a concentrated source of sugar (albeit natural) — is included. Drink water and unsweetened tea and coffee instead.
- Reach for a piece of fruit when you want something sweet. Raspberries and blackberries are good choices that are naturally low in sugar.
- Read ingredient labels carefully. According to the University of California San Francisco, there are more than 60 different names for sugar that can show up on ingredient lists, including, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, barley malt, dextrose, maltose and rice syrup.
Upgrade Your Diet
In addition to sugar, you should avoid fried foods, processed foods, refined grains like white pasta and bread, and fast foods. High in fat and calories and low in nutrients, these foods don't provide the satiety necessary to control your appetite.
Instead, eat more protein and fiber, which, according to a 2018 study in Nutrition, can help you lose body fat even in the absence of a calorie-restricted diet. Aim for at least 35 grams of fiber each day from fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight from lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, tofu, nuts and seeds.
Become More Active
Regular exercise will help you burn calories, and it will also naturally encourage you to eat healthier, according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2019. Health.gov's Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise each week. For even greater benefits, aim for at least 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 150 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.
Strength training is another key component for burning belly fat. Having more lean muscle mass actually increases your resting metabolism rate so that you can burn more calories round the clock.
Do body-weight exercises or lift weights in the gym, targeting all your major muscle groups — not just your abs — at least twice a week. Compound exercises that use multiple muscle groups at one time — such as squats, lunges and pushups — are effective belly fat burner exercises that torch calories while you're doing them and increase your calorie burn for a period of time after you finish your workout.
Read more: These 12 Moves Will Get You Washboard Abs
- Diabetes.co.uk: Visceral Fat (Active Fat)
- Harvard Health Publishing: Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It
- Today's Dietitian: Farewell to the 3,500-Calorie Rule
- Precision Nutrition: Calories in vs. Out? Or Hormones? The Debate Is Finally Over. Here’s Who Won
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: Obesity, Sugar and Heart Health
- The Journal of Nutrition: Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption Is Associated with Abdominal Fat Partitioning in Healthy Adults
- MyFoodData: Top 10 Fruits Lowest in Sugar
- University of California San Francisco: Hidden in Plain Sight
- International Journal of Obesity: The Influence of 15-Week Exercise Training on Dietary Patterns Among Young Adults
- Health.gov: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition: Chapter 4. Active Adults
- University of New Mexico: Controversies in Metabolism
- ACE Fitness: 5 Benefits of Compound Exercises
- Mayo Clinic: Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics
- Nutrition: A Nonrestrictive, Weight Loss Diet Focused on Fiber and Lean Protein Increase