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Losing weight in general is hard, but dropping belly fat in particular can feel insurmountable. It’s not all in your head: “It’s essentially impossible to tell one specific region of your body to accelerate fat metabolism,” says Chris DiVecchio, a NASM-certified personal trainer and author of The 5 x 2 Method: Revealing the Power of Your Senses.
Still, it’s a worthy goal to lose belly fat because it’s “unfortunately the most dangerous location to store fat,” says Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University and associate professor of health, behavior & society at Johns Hopkins University. Because belly fat—also known as visceral fat, or the deep abdominal fat that surrounds your organs—is more temporary, it circulates throughout the bloodstream more regularly and is therefore likelier to raise the amount of fat in your blood, increasing your blood sugar levels and putting you at a greater risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Okay, you get the point: belly fat = bad. But how do you lose it? You have to think beyond crunches and planks and adopt a well-rounded approach. “It’s got to be more losing fat as a whole,” agrees Chris Gagliardi, a certified personal trainer at the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Without further ado, here are the best ways to lose belly fat once and for all.
1. Accept that your behaviors will adjust.
A big part of weight loss is simply being aware of the decisions you’re making. For example, when out at happy hour with friends, you may lose track of how much you’re eating or drinking. But if you take a split second to step back and become aware of that fact, you’re able to course correct. “The awareness and then planning for what else I can be doing, that might give me the same benefit of eating comfort foods,” says Gagliardi.
2. Track your calories.
The most basic approach to weight loss is burning more calories than you consume. For instance, since 3,500 calories equals one pound of fat, a weight loss app—or even just a pen and paper—can help you decide how many calories you need to cut from your diet or burn at the gym in order to meet your goals. “If you were to burn 500 more calories per day seven days a week, that would lead to 3,500 calories in a week and one pound of weight loss,” says Gagliardi.
If you’re not up for crunching numbers every day, you can take a more generalized approach. “For some people, it’s knowing, ‘Typically I eat a whole sandwich,’” says Gagliardi. “Now, I’m going to eat half a sandwich at lunch and save the other half for my dinner and cut my calories in half.” To get started, consider these 25 ways to cut 500 calories a day.
3. Eat more fiber.
Foods that are high in refined carbs and sugar don’t actually tame your hunger, so you end up reaching for more. Instead, eat more fibrous foods like whole grain breads, oats, vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, and chia seeds. “They fill you up more,” says Dr. Cheskin, as fiber helps slow your digestion.
A 2015 study from the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that for those who have a hard time following a strict diet, simplifying the weight loss approach by just increasing fiber intake can still lead to weight loss. Women should aim for at least 25 grams of fiber per day (based on a 2,000-calorie) diet, according to the most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Start with our high-fiber diet plan.
4. Walk every day.
If you don’t have an established exercise routine, “walking is a pretty good entry point for people,” says Gagliardi. One small study published in The Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry found that obese women who did a walking program for 50 to 70 minutes three days per week for 12 weeks significantly slashed their visceral fat compared to a sedentary control group.
“Even if your starting point is a one-minute walk, if that’s more than what you’ve been doing, there’s health benefits to that,” says Gagliardi. One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to lose weight is that they try to do too much too soon and get burnt out.
“Starting slow and working your way up is better than overdoing it and giving up,” says Gagliardi. An easy way to approach it: Commit to going for a quick, 10-minute walk after dinner, and slowly increase the time as you become more comfortable with daily movement.
5. Begin strength training.
It’s important to do full-body strength training if you want to lose belly fat—especially if you’re trying to keep it off for the long haul. “Strength training should be a part of just about everybody’s exercise plan,” says Dr. Cheskin. That’s because strength training helps you build muscle, which will replace body fat. And because muscle is metabolically active, you’ll continue to burn calories after working out, thereby, reducing overall body fat. Bonus: When your metabolic rate becomes faster due to muscle growth, you’ll have a little more wiggle room in your diet if that’s something you struggle with, says Dr. Cheskin.
To get started, lift weights at least two days per week and work up from there, says Gagliardi. “One way to think of it is that you are building up to supporting your long-term goals,” he explains.
For example, maybe you want to be able to do certain movements, like a deadlift or bench press, and work your way up to more reps of those exercises—or maybe it’s as simple as wanting to improve your activities in daily living, like more easily lifting groceries.
6. Embrace healthy fats.
If you want to lose fat, you have to eat fat…the right kind, that is.
Adding healthy fats, in the form of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, can help you feel more satisfied with your meals. Yasi Ansari, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., national medial spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says, “Fat sources that I recommend boosting in the diet come from unsaturated fatty acids found in foods like olive oil, nuts, avocados, fatty fish, and eggs, as they can help increase satiety while providing a variety of health benefits when consumed in moderation.” You can increase your intake of healthy fats by adding some chopped avocado into your salads, enjoying wild salmon twice a week, and having a little peanut butter with your post-workout snack or smoothie. Just remember to enjoy them in moderation as they’re still very calorie-dense, Ansari says.
7. Load up on protein.
There’s a reason everyone harps on about protein: Not only does it help keep you full, but it’s also responsible for repairing the tiny tears caused by strength training in your muscles. This helps them grow bigger and stronger, nudging out body fat in the process. As a general rule of thumb, aim to get at least 70 grams of protein throughout the day, says Dr. Cheskin.
This is especially important before you exercise. We’re all guilty of going hard at the gym, and then heading straight to Chipotle afterward because we’re super hungry. The result? You eat more calories than you burn and end up with excess belly fat.
To avoid feeling hungry after a workout, eat a snack with at least 12 grams of protein before exercising, says Dr. Cheskin. And if you’re still hungry afterward? First, check in with yourself and make sure it’s actual hunger and not dehydration, says Dr. Cheskin. Then, eat a protein-rich snack that also includes some carbs, like a protein bar with whole grains.
8. Okay, now you can do some crunches.
Although you can’t spot reduce fat, you can target building lean muscle tissue, which in turn helps burn fat. “There are literally dozens of muscles between your shoulders and your hips that are involved in every movement you do,” says DiVecchio. “The fastest way to create a lean midsection begins with choosing the right moves.”
Aim to do ab work three or four times a week on non-consecutive days with at least 24 hours of rest in between sessions, says Gagliardi. During those sessions, you can start with simpler moves like crunches, bicycle crunches, and planks. Even though you may only be directly targeting your abs three or four times a week, you should still be activating your core (aka, tightening your ab muscles) in every workout you do, says Gagliardi.
There are tons of different ab workouts you can do right in your home. Once you’re comfortable in an ab routine, work your way up to more complex ab exercises, like side-to-side med ball slams and weighted Russian twists, says DiVecchio.
9. Try to limit your stress.
Stress can mess with every part of your body—but how you deal with it can make or break your weight loss goals. “I think most of the effect of stress is behavioral rather than neurochemical,” says Dr. Cheskin. “It makes us eat more, because we use food as a substitute for dealing with stress.”
The truth is, eating food to make yourself feel better is usually a whole lot easier than actually facing the stress head-on. “People gravitate toward something that doesn’t require anybody else to do it, is immediately satisfying, and doesn’t take a whole lot of effort, especially if you’re just opening up a package or box,” says Dr. Cheskin.
Stress-eating can only lead to one thing: growing your belly rather than whittling it. If you find yourself stress eating, take a step back and think: What’s causing my stress, and what can I do about it? Find a way to remedy the solution or talk through it with a therapist rather than turning to a bag of Doritos.
10. Prioritize quality sleep.
Sleep is huge when it comes to your weight loss success—and that’s both if you sleep too much or too little. “Sleeping too much is probably not great for you healthwise,” says Dr. Cheskin. “But sleeping too little is worse.”
Case in point: One 2017 review and meta-analysis from the U.K. found that people who slept 5.5 hours or less per night ate an extra 385 calories the day after compared to those who snoozed for at least seven to 12 hours. On top of that, they preferred to munch on fatty foods full of empty calories, like chips.
If you’re only getting a minimal amount of sleep each night, that leaves more time for you to snack and make otherwise unhealthy decisions that could affect your weight loss. Although it will vary from person to person on how much sleep you actually need to be most effective (and therefore make progress toward your weight loss goals), the ideal number is typically seven or eight hours, says Dr. Cheskin.
11. Drink less alcohol.
To lose weight, you simply have to consume fewer calories—but that can be tough when feelings of hunger start creeping in. One good plan of attack? Ditch the empty calories that don’t serve your goals so you can make more room for the foods that do. This includes all sugary drinks, like soda, but alcohol is a big one.
Ansari says alcohol can prevent weight loss in several ways, including the fact that heavy alcohol intake can stimulate food intake. “Binge drinking can overload the liver. The liver then prioritizes processing alcohol over other nutrients and then stores the protein, carbs, and fat as fat in the body,” Ansari explains. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines binge drinking as having five or more drinks for men, and four or more drinks for women in two hours. “Also, alcoholic beverages are often mixed with sugar-rich beverages. Drinking more than moderate amounts of alcohol can cause calories to add up quickly,” she says.
Research also finds that drinking frequently—even if it’s a moderate amount—can set you up for excess pudge. Not only do the beverages themselves contain unnecessary calories, but once you start sipping too much, your inhibition also plummets, according to one 2016 study. The result? You’ll have a hard time resisting that late-night slice of pizza. So if you’re going to imbibe, stick to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks for men. (Order one of these lowest-calorie alcoholic drinks.)
12. Cook more often.
Spending more time in the kitchen can help you shed belly fat, as long as you’re cooking with the right foods, according to a 2017 study. After analyzing data from more than 11,000 men and women, U.K. researchers found that people who ate more than five homemade meals per week were 28 percent less likely to have a high body mass index, and 24 percent less likely to carry too much body fat than those whole only downed three meals at home.
The researchers explain that people who cook their own meals may simply have other good-for-you habits, like exercising more. However, they also concluded that home cooks ate more fruits and vegetables (along with a wider variety of foods), have healthier methods of prepping their food, and splurge less on foods high in calories and sugar. Consider any of the healthy eating books below to get started.
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