“I feel like I need to lose the fat right here!”
As a dietitian and trainer, I’ve met people time and time again who have this same lamentation about their midsection. Why does fat seem to gravitate there so easily? What is it about our middles that makes that fat so stubborn and hard to lose? And how can we see some changes? Read on.
Belly Fat Anatomy
The fat in our midsection is made up of both subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.
Subcutaneous is the fat you can see and pinch. For those who are working hard to try to tone their core with crunches and planks, this fat is what covers up the ab muscles underneath.
This type of fat is typically used by the body to store excess energy and calories. While some may consider it unsightly, it’s a bit more of an aesthetic issue relative to its belly-fat cousin, visceral fat.
Visceral fat is found around your internal organs, deeper within your body. It’s metabolically active, but not in the way we would hope. It’s strongly linked to chronic inflammation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even dementia.
When someone has extreme amounts of visceral fat, it can expand the midsection so much that it actually feels hard (albeit round) to the touch. However, take note: You don’t have to be carrying excess pounds for visceral fat to be an issue. Someone of “normal” weight with an apple shape may also be at high risk from the negative health effects of this deep visceral fat.
Why Belly Fat Happens
There are multiple factors at play when it comes to the body’s propensity to store belly fat, whether that be visceral or subcutaneous. Here are the ones we tend to see most often:
An excess of calories.
Consuming too many calories is more complex than simply “eating too much,” although that certainly can be a standalone problem itself.
Our Western food environment is set up in a way that makes naturally controlling calories extremely difficult. We’re positioned to be more sedentary (e.g., an abundance of desk jobs and commuting to work via driving instead of walking) and are surrounded by highly processed, hyper-palatable, nutrient-poor convenience foods.
Unless you’re purposefully prioritizing a whole-food diet made up of colorful vegetables and fruit, plenty of meat, fish, eggs, and other quality protein sources, healthy fat such as nuts, seeds, and avocado, and complex carbohydrates like root veggies and beans, it’s likely you’re overconsuming calories, even if you’re not eating a high volume of foods.
Too much dietary fructose.
Most of us have heard of high-fructose corn syrup, but even if you’re avoiding that specific ingredient, this type of simple sugar may still be a concern. The intake of fructose has skyrocketed as the result of widespread production of refined sugar and refined sugar products.
Although fructose is sometimes referred to as “fruit sugar” — since it’s found in fruit — whole fruit is rarely the issue. The most significant sources of fructose in our food supply come from sweetened beverages, such as soda pop, juices (even 100 percent fruit juice), and energy drinks. It’s also found in agave, honey, candy, and most processed baked goods.
Half of the molecular structure of table sugar is fructose, so avoiding added sugars — no matter what name they’re called by — is key.
Note: Added sugars are a sneaky, pervasive, and unfortunate staple in our food supply, which is part of the reason we recommend scrutinizing the ingredient list of foods you’re regularly eating. You can read more and learn how to eat less sugar (even if you don’t think you currently eat a lot of it) here: “Simple Ways to Eat Less Sugar.”
An imbalance of hormones.
The propensity to store fat in the midsection can be enhanced with certain hormonal patterns. In men, low testosterone has been shown to correlate with belly fat storage — and it’s been estimated that 40 percent of men over the age of 45 wrestle with low levels.
During menopause, women often report struggling with a noticeable and unwanted change in how their body stores fat, with more accumulating at the waistline than ever before. This is due to the hormonal cascade of rapidly declining estrogen (along with falling of the estrogen-binding protein called SHBG) and the relative increase in certain characteristically male hormones. As a result, there’s a redistribution of fat to the middle region, along with the associated cardiovascular risk factors.
What You Can Do
Although there are several factors involved, losing belly fat is not a hopeless battle. There are tangible lifestyle habits you can implement to help with both subcutaneous and visceral body-fat losses.
Here’s your six-step plan:
1. Focus on foods you ought to be eating to edge out the foods that are better to avoid.
With my clients, I’ve seen the most success in long-term, transformative nutrition changes from having an additive mindset versus a restrictive one. Instead of focusing on everything that “should” be given up, aim first to make sure you’re eating what is best for your metabolism.
For most people, this serves as a great starting point:
- Drink half your body weight in ounces of water every day. This not only hydrates, detoxifies, and boosts energy, but it also helps you naturally limit your intake of soda pop, sweetened coffee drinks, and other sugary beverages.
- Consume 1 gram of protein per pound of ideal body weight throughout your day’s meals and snacks. Getting enough protein in naturally helps stabilize blood sugar and insulin, as well as helps kill cravings for processed foods since it’s so filling.
- Target 5 to 7 cups (or more) of non-starchy vegetables per day. This provides an array of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. It also delivers hunger-busting fiber that helps balance your hormones and regulate your appetite.
It might sound simple, but focusing on doing these things can help you naturally limit trans fats, inflammatory processed foods, and added sugars — all things worth giving up for a healthier waistline and better metabolic health. Plus, these habits also help manage blood sugar and insulin levels, which are both essential to see results.
2. Detox from social media and late-night TV.
Although it’s mission-critical for losing belly fat (see cortisol note above), most people under-prioritize sleep and stress management since they don’t inherently feel productive. However, since the hormonal stress response and sleep go hand-in-hand, it’s sometimes more helpful to focus on some specific things to support both areas that can be implemented daily.
Have you ever felt uplifted or fulfilled after scrolling your social media feed? Chances are that you have not — and if you have, I’d guess those occasions are rare. For my clients, limiting social media exposure is one of the most powerful tools for reducing added stress.
Additionally, exposure to blue light from screens — such as on your phone or from the TV — is one of the most insidious thieves of a good night’s sleep. It disrupts our circadian rhythm and by doing so robs us of our deep, restorative, and uninterrupted rest.
For more ideas for how to keep stress levels in check, see: “Stress Management for Busy People.”
3. Lift regularly — and with good form.
Effective strength training often involves more than just body weight: it takes added resistance from weights, bands, kettlebells, and other objects to add continued challenge.
A well-designed strength program with progressive overload (an exercise physiology term referring to a formulaic increase in resistance over time designed to strengthen muscles) done regularly (three times per week or more) is one of the most transformative things you can do for your metabolism and belly fat. Simply put, more muscle mass equals more calorie burn — and better-controlled blood sugar, which is essential to a healthy midsection.
Additionally, most fitness professionals work hard to help clients undo any forward tilting of the hips (called anterior pelvic tilt) that can posturally protrude the belly region. This often happens as a result of sitting all day with a weak core.
To help with this, exercise programming often prioritizes the posterior chain or backside, which include our glutes, lower back, and hamstrings, along with stretching hip flexors regularly. Perfect form is a top priority with every lift for efficacy, safety, and strengthening of the core. (Yes, it is possible to strengthen your abdominals with well-done compound lifts, such as deadlifts.)
For a fully optimized exercise program to help target the midsection, pair your metabolism-boosting strength training and lifting with regular Pilates sessions. This can help to combat postural imbalances from your day-to-day life and foster a mind-body connection to help ensure you’re using the right muscles when you’re training.
4. Balance out your cardio.
While it’s common knowledge that light, never-break-a-sweat cardio alone is probably ineffective at blasting belly fat, most are surprised to learn that attacking your aerobic training with all-out intensity most of the time is unlikely to help either.
When it comes to cardio, the secret is balance: You want to spend about 80 percent of your weekly cardio time at intensities that feel easy and fairly comfortable. Spend the other 20 percent of your time interval training to feel winded and push your max for short bursts.
The lower-intensity training sends an effective message to your metabolism that your lifestyle relies on regular, slower-paced activity, which sends a signal to burn fat. The pushes into higher intensities help your overall fitness level and cardiovascular health, in addition to providing some benefit for your blood sugar and insulin control. (See “Steady-State Cardio Vs. High-Intensity Interval Training” to learn more.)
5. Test your hormones.
In combination with the other steps listed here, pinpointing your hormones — and taking steps to address imbalances — can be a game changer for addressing belly fat.
We’re big believers in annual, comprehensive lab testing for a reason: Most of us, even when we’re medically fine, have underlying imbalances that are behind pesky things we’re trying to avoid — including belly fat and bloating.
There’s a difference between being within the medical reference range for hormones including testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, and insulin (all belly-fat culprits) and being in the optimal range. Taking targeted steps to shift each of these into optimal can not only help lay the foundation to more effectively lose belly fat, but they can give you a feeling of better overall vitality and health, too.
6. Give it time.
I know I won’t make any friends with this piece of advice, but unfortunately, there’s no 10-day plan to blast away excess visceral fat and flatten the midsection. But since losing belly fat can be transformative for your well-being, it’s something to start working on today.
Noticeable change comes with small habits done consistently over time. There’s no real, lasting way to speed that up, but know that your path to a healthier you is ready when you are, and it can start with the steps outlined above.