Somehow the myth that you can pick and choose where on your body you lose weight from still exists. But, in reality, you can’t do that. So if you’ve ever wondered how to specifically lose stomach area fat and are in search of safe and sustainable ways to do so, know this: You can’t spot-reduce body fat, but there are tried-and-true diet and lifestyle tweaks that will help you lose fat all over. And we’ve got ya covered.
Let’s get this out of the way upfront: “People genetically store weight differently,” says Albert Matheny, RD. “You may gain weight in different areas and, when you go to lose weight, you’re simply losing the fat that’s stored.” But you can’t tell your body to only pull fat from certain areas because your body pulls fat as a system rather than specific areas, he adds.
While you should never feel pressured to lose weight, it’s important to point out that belly fat in particular isn’t great for your overall health. For example, it’s been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Meet the experts: Albert Matheny is a registered dietitian and a co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab, Promix Nutrition, and ARENA. Jessica Cording is a registered dietitian and the author of The Little Book of Game-Changers.
If you’re on a mission to lose stomach fat, it really comes down to—you guessed it!—your diet and exercise habits and personal genetics. “If you’re exercising and taking in less calories, you will lose weight,” Matheny says. There are some factors that might help, like drinking and stressing less, says Jessica Cording, RD, but more on that in a sec.
You could also technically lose belly fat without exercising, per Matheny, provided you’re burning off more calories than you’re consuming. But working out regularly is good for your overall health, so you should definitely make it a part of your daily routine whether you’re trying to lose weight or not.
In general, experts say these health and fitness changes can help you lose belly fat—and fat elsewhere—and keep it off.
1. Manage your stress levels the best you can.
Easier said than done, right? Unfortunately having higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol has been shown to promote accumulation of fat tissue around the midsection, explains Cording.
If you know what’s seriously stressing you out, like a friend who won’t stop talking sh*t or a bad living situation, take action to eliminate these stressors. Facing a situation that’s trickier to fix? Consider taking up mindfulness meditation or yoga, or seeing a mental health professional for tips on how you can better manage your stress.
2. Cut back on alcohol.
Alcohol contains calories, but they’re not ones that you’re usually thinking about when you’re living it up at happy hour. And if you drink regularly, those can add up.
Alcohol also lowers your inhibitions and can raise the odds you’ll reach for less healthy food when you’re under the influence, Cording says. In general, it’s best to stick with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend having no more than one drink per day for women. If you find that you’re still dealing with belly fat and you can do without a regular cocktail, this could be an easy fix.
3. Skip juices.
Speaking of drinks, juices can also add extra calories and mess with your blood sugar, Cording says. When you drink juice, it converts into sugar in your body. And if you don’t have it with sources of fat or protein at the same time, it can cause a blood sugar crash afterward, leaving you feeling hungry. That ultimately can cause you to eat more, she says. So, skip the OJ in the a.m. if you can help it.
4. Prioritize sleep as best you can.
This one seems basic, but clocking some extra Zs can help you lose weight. One 2016 meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at data from 11 studies and found that people who slept 5.5 hours or less every night ended up consuming 385 more calories than those who had seven to 12 hours of shut-eye. People with fewer hours of sleep also ate foods that were not so great for weight loss like junk food.
If you can, strive to get the recommended seven-plus hours of sleep a night.
5. Watch your calories.
This is pretty simple, and is repeatedly recommended by experts: Keep tabs on your calorie intake. About 3,500 calories equals one pound of fat, Cording says, so you’ll want to cut back on the number of calories you eat in order to lose fat.
A handy tool to try: The National Institutes of Health’s Body Weight Planner is an online tool that asks you for info like your weight and weight loss goals, along with how soon you’re hoping to reach them. It will then give you a goal calorie amount to hit every day to lose weight.
6. Do a little math.
This piggy-backs off of watching your calories. “It’s really just getting down to the numbers of it,” Matheny says. “You want to create a deficit of input vs. output—that’s when you will lose weight.”
So, if you know you’re burning 200 calories with exercise every day and cutting out an extra 100 calories from your morning orange juice, you’ll be at a 300-calorie deficit—and that will ultimately help you lose weight.
7. Eat more fiber.
Fiber, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a type of carb that your body can’t digest. It also helps fill you up and keep you regular, Cording says—and it can help you lose weight.
One 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine had 240 adults go on a high-fiber diet or another diet recommended by the American Heart Association. The higher fiber group lost weight simply by upping their fiber intake.
How much fiber should you aim for? In general, women want to have 25 grams a day, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). FYI, foods like lentils, berries, avocados, and chia seeds are great sources of fiber, so make sure you add them to your meals and snacks.
8. Get more steps in every day.
Yep, like walking. Both Jessica Simpson and Rebel Wilson have lost weight by increasing their step counts, and Matheny says this is a legit way to help you drop pounds. Research has also found that walking more can actually target stomach fat.
A 2014 study published in The Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry had obese women walk for 50 to 70 minutes three times a week for 12 weeks, and found that they lost a significant amount of belly fat compared to those who weren’t on a walking program.
You can gradually work your way up with this one, Matheny says. “You’ll burn more calories if you put more general activity into your day,” he says. “Getting in more steps adds up.”
9. Keep tabs on your sugar intake.
Sugar isn’t great for your overall health—or your weight. In fact, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found a link between people who eat a lot of sugar and higher levels of body fat. Cording suggests cutting back on obvious sources of sugar, like sweets and drinks like soda, to help you reach your goals.
10. Avoid processed foods.
Processed foods—chips, candy, cookies—can add extra calories to your diet, fast. They can also increase the level of inflammation in your body, which raises your risk of developing body fat, says Cording. Opt for fresh, whole foods whenever you can.
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11. Pass on simple carbs.
Things like white bread, pasta, and cereals can cause your blood sugar to spike and then drop, Cording says. The result? You can end up feeling hungrier and then eat more than you normally would. Try to focus on complex carbs instead, like whole-grain breads.
12. Add interval workouts to the mix.
Intervals workouts like HIIT help get your heart rate up fast and burn more calories, per Matheny. Try working your way through intervals that combine cardio with strength training for maximum benefits, like battle ropes alongside pull-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks, burpees, and planks.
What about sit-ups and crunches? These workouts will only train your abdominal muscles (which is pretty great), but not burn visceral fat, which is stored deep inside the belly and wraps around your organs. When people talk about belly fat, visceral fat is usually what they’re referring to. To get to that layer, you’ll need to lower your overall body fat by making changes to your diet and performing moderate-intensity physical activity.
You can still do abdominal exercises if that’s your jam. Just know that you’ll need to work out your whole body if you want to lose belly fat.
You may have heard the saying “muscle burns more than fat,” and it’s absolutely true. “It’s easy to lose weight when you have muscle mass—muscle is what burns the most calories outside of your base metabolic rate,” Matheny says. “The more muscle you have, the more additional calories you can burn.”
If you haven’t done strength training in the past, he recommends starting a routine. And, if you’re already a lifter, try adding more reps to your existing plan.
14. Go for more protein.
Protein helps fill you up, making you less likely to overeat. “Sometimes, people just aren’t having enough protein,” Cording says. Try adding lean meats to your diet, like grilled chicken and fish to ramp up your protein intake.
15. …and healthy fats, while you’re at it.
Fat helps fill you up too, Cording says. Of course, too much fat will work against your weight loss goals, so you want to strive to have healthy fats in your diet (think: nuts and avocados) and watch your calorie count to make sure you’re not overdoing it.
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