How do I lose belly fat? I’d be a millionaire if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me this question.
If you’re reading this, you might be wondering the same thing – and you have a good reason to wonder. The truth is that it’s a loaded question. Belly fat itself is linked to a lot of different factors from what we eat and how active we are, to how much we sleep and whether or not we’re stressed, to our inherited body type and other genes passed down from our parents.
Seems pretty complicated, right?
Luckily, for as complicated as it might seem, we actually have a good bit of control over most of the factors I’ve mentioned. Really, we do!
Here I’m going to give you the real skinny on belly fat and explain the interplay between all the different factors. Once you have a good understanding of how these factors contribute to the development of belly fat, you’ll have an even better understanding of what it takes to lose it. We’ll talk about how to do that too. But first things first, what exactly is belly fat anyway.
What Is Belly Fat
Simply put, belly fat refers to the fat in and around our abdomen, which many people just call the belly, tummy or stomach. Like all parts of the body, our abdomen is comprised of an outer layer of skin and an inner layer of subcutaneous fat tissue housed just underneath the skin. This is the fat that you can pinch. The abdomen also houses various long, flat sheets of muscle tissue just beneath the subcutaneous fat. People typically refer to this muscle as the “six-pack.”
In addition to subcutaneous fat, there’s an even deeper layer of fat tissue in the abdomen, located behind the six-pack. This fat is known as visceral fat. Often called “hidden fat,” visceral fat surrounds all the vital organs in our abdomen like the pancreas, liver and intestines. Contrary to popular belief, our bodies need both types of fats for things like energy storage, temperature regulation, protection of the organs and even hormone production.
Problems arise when too much body fat accumulates, particularly when it comes to visceral fat. Unlike subcutaneous fat, which is normally harmless, carrying too much visceral fat is extremely harmful, as it’s linked to a higher risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
Too Much of a Good Thing
In and of itself, excess belly fat is a twofold issue that involves excess buildup of subcutaneous fat in addition to excess visceral fat accumulation. Subcutaneous fat buildup manifests as a “flabby,” hanging stomach while visceral fat accumulation results in more of a pronounced paunch that’s hard and firm. This is because visceral fat pushes out against the abdominal wall in a way that causes those flat sheets of muscle inside to protrude or stick out.
This is why the stereotypical “beer belly” feels so hard and firm. Needless to say, having a beer belly isn’t just a matter of vanity. It can actually affect your health.
What Causes Excess Belly Fat
As I mentioned before, belly fat is linked to a lot of different factors – some are controllable, and some aren’t. For instance, having an “apple” body shape is a big contributor. This is a term used to describe a central body fat distribution where fat tends to accumulate in and around the abdomen versus the lower half (“pear” body shape). Because our genes can determine up to 80% of our body shape, this factor is largely uncontrollable.
So is gender and age. Generally speaking, men are more likely than are women to develop excess belly fat. Likewise, older adults tend to accumulate excess belly fat more easily than their younger counterparts.
But then there are those controllable lifestyle behaviors, which play a huge role in belly fat accumulation, especially what we eat and what we do in terms of physical activity. Consuming lots of heavily processed foods, for example, has long been linked to increased visceral fat. Since these foods are generally low in fiber, high in sugars and/or made up of low-quality starches, they tend to digest and absorb very quickly leading to pronounced elevations in blood sugar (glucose).
Sugar Can Be the Belly’s Nemesis
Let me be clear, when eaten in sensible amounts sugar itself isn’t bad. It’s overconsumption that’s the real problem. Excess sugar consumption causes repeated elevations in blood glucose. This increases the body’s demand for insulin. Insulin is an essential hormone who’s primary role is to clear excess glucose from the blood fast. When glucose levels remain too high for too long, insulin signals the liver and muscle cells to store the excess.
However, these cells can only hold so much. Once the liver and muscle cells have met their storage capacity, any remaining glucose is converted to triglycerides and stored as visceral fat. But it doesn’t stop there. Over time, continuous insulin release can cause the body’s cells to become less sensitive to it (insulin resistance). This is what contributes to the development of prediabetes and, if left unmanaged, type 2 diabetes.
On the flip side, physical activity inherently helps control blood glucose levels by reducing the body’s overall demand for insulin. This is primarily because movement in general has “insulin-like” effects that naturally lower blood glucose by increasing the rate at which it’s used to fuel the working muscles. In other words, as long as you’re moving, so is the glucose. Are you starting to see how everything’s connected?
But Wait, There’s More!
Finally, we simply can’t ignore the influences of stress and sleep. In fact, these are two of the most overlooked, but major factors in excess belly fat accumulation.
To make it plain, stressing too much and sleeping too little are sure-fire ways to increase visceral fat buildup. This is because both factors cause our bodies to release a powerful hormone called cortisol. Also known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol inherently increases the amount of glucose in the blood and ultimately increases the body’s demand for insulin – and we’ve already talked about the consequences of this situation.
It’s actually one of the reasons why chronic stress and sleep deprivation are two of the hidden contributors to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and other health issues. Once again, everything is connected.
How to Lose Belly Fat
Obviously, you can’t stop the aging process, naturally change your assigned gender or swap out the shape you were born with. However, there are plenty of factors you can in fact control like what you eat, how active you are and how you manage stress. Controlling these controllable factors, will not only help you lose belly fat but doing so will also improve your overall health and wellness. Here, I’ll talk about five ways to do this.
Eating Lots of Protein-Rich Foods
Protein is already a necessary component of any diet, but it’s extremely important for burning excess belly fat. It specifically helps shed visceral fat by increasing the rate at which it’s released into the bloodstream and ultimately burned for energy. In addition, protein itself helps preserve muscle tissue, which is one of the body’s most metabolically active tissues. The more metabolically active the tissue, the more fat you’ll burn at rest and during any types of activity.
Even the simple act of eating and digesting protein-rich foods promotes fat burning by boosting metabolism. While everyone’s protein needs vary, taking in an average of 0.40-0.50 grams of protein per one pound of your body weight per day is a great target. You can achieve this by regularly eating poultry, fish, lean meats, eggs, cheese, whole soy foods or even a variety of different legumes and grains (click here for valuable tips on choosing your proteins).
Taking in Good Doses of Good Fats
Now, this might sound a bit counterintuitive, but eating fat actually helps the body burn fat, especially visceral fat. It’s true! Regularly eating quality fat-rich foods actually helps prevent visceral fat accumulation and decrease insulin resistance in ways that inherently support weight loss and overall good health (click here to learn more). It’s one of the reasons I personally follow a Mediterranean-style diet.
Having said that let me also emphasize the word “quality.” I’m not talking about the cheap fats added to fast and processed foods. I’m talking about the good ones like those naturally housed in extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds and oily fish. And a little can go a very long way. In fact, you can reap maximum benefits from a mere 2-3 daily servings. Check out some of our salad bowl and dressing recipes to see how it’s done.
Combining Cardio and Resistance Training
Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to burn excess belly fat. This holds especially true for cardio exercise and resistance training. By itself, cardio burns calories very quickly. The more calories you burn, the more fat you’ll ultimately lose. Short, intense bursts of cardio can be especially beneficial for shedding both visceral fat and subcutaneous fat, particularly when combined with resistance as done during high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts.
Even in the absence of HIIT, resistance training inherently strengthens and preserves muscle. Remember, muscle is a metabolically active, fat-burning tissue. In fact, just one full-body resistance training session can elevate your metabolism for up to 12 hours. This means you’ll continue to burn calories long after you’ve stopped exercising. As little as 2-3 days a week of training with free weights, machines, rubber tubing or your own bodyweight is all it takes.
Getting Good Quality Sleep
As I’ve already mentioned, not getting enough sleep is a huge risk factor for excess belly fat. In fact, research shows that just two weeks of sleep deprivation can lead to increases in both visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. Adding insult to injury, insufficient sleep can even increase appetite stimulation and overeating. Definitely not a good recipe for weight management.
While most adults need 7-8 hours of good quality sleep each night, at a minimum, you can shoot for six. Having a regular nightly routine helps. This could include things like taking a warm shower or a bath, reading a book, or performing light stretches just prior to bedtime. It would also behoove you to turn off those TVs, computers and smartphones to avoid overstimulation.
Finding Ways to Better Handle Stress
If you’re frequently stressed out, I can almost guarantee that it’ll eventually show up on your waistline, especially if you generally cope with food, alcohol and/or cigarettes. Though stress is oftentimes inevitable, it’s important to find better ways to handle it – or else some belly fat will be the least of your worries. Besides promoting visceral fat storage and insulin resistance, high levels of cortisol from long-term stress can also increase blood pressure and cholesterol.
Practicing mindfulness and meditation, deep breathing, eating well, being active and regularly getting outdoors are just some of the many ways you can effectively combat stress and, ultimately, boost your health and wellness. Personally, I tend to turn to comfort foods when stressed. So, when confronted with everyday hassles, I make an all-out effort to counter that emotional eating by hitting the weights or hitting the road to run. Most of the time it works!
So, as you can see, doing endless sit-ups and crunches is not the path to losing belly fat. It’s just not that simple. But losing belly fat is in fact doable. You just have to be strategic with your efforts. In most cases, following the tips I’ve highlighted here will get you there. Following these tips will also set you on a path to long-term health and wellness. Try some of them today and watch the magic happen.