How to Lose Belly Fat Without Losing Weight

When talking about weight loss, it's often unclear that fat is not the only substance that contributes to your body weight. Lean muscle also makes up a large part of your body weight. Most people want to lose only body fat, not muscle. With the right diet and exercise plan, you can lose belly fat while maintaining muscle mass, which will prevent the number on the scale from going down.

Lowering your calories too much will cause you to lose muscle mass. (Image: nd3000/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

Burning fat and building muscle will help you maintain your body weight.

Muscle vs. Fat

Maybe you've heard people say that muscle is heavier than fat. This is not true. A pound is a pound, and whether it's a pound of muscle, fat or feathers, it weighs — a pound!

What they mean is that if you take an equal mass of muscle and fat, the mass of muscle will weigh more than the fat mass. This is because muscle tissue is much denser than fat, and therefore heavier. You can view it another way — a pound of muscle would take up less space than a pound of fat.

Losing Lean Muscle Mass

Weight-loss diets can often have a downside. When you restrict calories, your body sometimes doesn't differentiate between stored fat and lean muscle tissue, and it may catabolize muscle tissue for energy along with fat. This is especially true with very low-calorie diets and low-carb diets.

Loss of lean muscle mass will cause you to lose more body weight — the number on the scale — than fat mass. So, to maintain your body weight while losing belly fat, you must maintain — and build — lean muscle mass.

Best Belly Fat Burner

If you aren't currently doing any strength training, it's time to start — for a couple of reasons. The first one is that lean muscle mass is an effective belly fat burner. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat. Your body has to expend more energy to build and maintain muscle protein — as much as 15 percent more than for fat, according to Paige Kinucan and Len Kravitz, Ph.D., of the University of New Mexico.

The second reason is that building muscle as you lose fat will help keep the number on the scale from dropping. And if you want to gain weight while losing fat, building even more muscle will help you do that.

Plan to strength train all your major muscle groups twice weekly. Perform compound exercises — those that use more than one muscle group at a time — to build muscle and burn calories at the same time. Examples include squats, lunges, dead lifts, push-ups, bench press, pull-ups and rows. Do three sets of eight to 12 repetitions for each exercise, resting for one to three minutes between sets.

Tip

If you want to lose only belly fat, don't waste your time in the gym doing a lot of crunches. You can't spot reduce, so it won't help you lose belly fat.

While some abdominal exercises will benefit your core strength, you'll get more results from focusing on multi-muscle-group compound exercises.

Do the Right Cardio

It's a common mistake to think that cardio — and more cardio — is the best exercise for fat loss. You definitely need to do some cardio — it's good for your overall health and it helps you burn off some extra calories. However, when maintaining muscle is your goal, it's important not to do too much.

Author and strength coach Christian Thibaudeau says there is a cardio sweet spot. Doing a lot of moderate-intensity cardio, especially endurance aerobic training, increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol. While this hormone plays important roles in blood sugar control and metabolism regulation and helps control inflammation, it also speeds up protein breakdown, according to Ryan Andrews, MS, RD. Chronic high blood levels of cortisol can lead to muscle loss.

Steady-state long-distance running is especially linked with protein loss. High-intensity training that lasts for more than 15 minutes also promotes cortisol release, says Thibaudeau. Therefore, to optimally maintain and build muscle mass, he suggests doing low-intensity cardio, such as walking at a leisurely pace for an hour, or brief high-intensity cardio workouts lasting no longer than 15 minutes.

Lower Your Calories Conservatively

Calorie restriction is at the heart of all weight-loss diets. Often too much emphasis is put on how much you eat rather than what you eat. The latter is actually the more important of the two, because what you eat determines your ability to control your appetite, and thus control your calorie intake.

To lose fat and build muscle at the same time is a slippery slope — reduce your calories too much and your body won't have the energy and raw materials it needs to build muscle tissue, or maintain the muscle tissue you already have. And you might not have the energy to make it into the gym each day.

Additionally, if you've previously been sedentary, starting an exercise program may increase your body's calorie needs. Depending on how much of a calorie surplus you had before beginning a workout program, your increased activity levels and your body's recovery needs may mean that creating a calorie deficit isn't necessary.

Tip

You can't target just your belly for fat loss. If you have fat in other areas of your body, you may see reductions in those areas before your stomach begins to look smaller. But if you stick with your diet and exercise program, you will eventually reach your belly fat loss goals.

Eat More Protein

Increasing your protein intake while you are losing weight can help you maintain muscle mass. In a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2016, an increased protein intake coupled with a calorie deficit and resistance training helped participants lose fat and gain muscle mass at the same time. A control group that didn't eat more protein lost less fat and gained less muscle.

So how much protein should you eat? The recommended dietary intake (RDI) for protein established by the National Academy of Medicine is 56 grams each day for men and 46 grams daily for women. That recommendation is based on 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

However, strength training increases your protein needs. The effective high-protein diet in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study provided 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of protein daily — three times the RDI. If you decide to increase your protein intake, make sure it fits in with your overall calorie goals for the day, and choose lean protein sources, such as chicken, fish, lean red meat, eggs and legumes.

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