The definition of belly fat might sound obvious—it’s clearly the fat that sits around your middle, right? Well, not quite. While belly fat (also known as visceral fat) does indeed reside around your midsection, it goes deeper than just below the skin, padding your intestines and other vital organs, Lawrence Cheskin, MD, professor and chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, tells Health.
“The reason it’s different than other forms of fat is because it’s more metabolically active—it gets into the bloodstream faster than the stuff under your skin,” Dr. Cheskin explains. “Belly fat has a bad influence on blood cholesterol and blood sugar, and all the metabolic diseases.” So with belly fat also comes a heightened risk of those metabolic diseases, like diabetes.
Belly fat can also be independent from overall body fat, meaning someone who’s not overweight could still have a lot of excess fat around his or her waist. The good news: For most people, when they lose weight, it tends to come off the middle, says Dr. Cheskin. People also tend to shed belly fat a little quicker than other areas, because the tummy is just a temporary holding zone for fat, he adds.
Something to keep in mind: It’s normal to carry some weight around your middle. Dr. Cheskin says a normal waist circumference is less than 40 inches for men and 36 inches for women—but if you want to trim it down, here are a few things you can do.
As you get older, your body changes how it gains and loses weight. Both men and women experience a declining metabolic rate, or the number of calories the body needs to function normally. On top of that, women have to deal with menopause. “If women gain weight after menopause, it’s more likely to be in their bellies,” Michael Jensen, MD, professor of medicine in the Mayo Clinic’s endocrinology division, tells Health. In menopause, production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone slows down. Meanwhile, testosterone levels also start to drop, but at a slower rate. This shift in hormones causes women to hold onto weight in their bellies.
You can’t fight aging, but you can adopt lifestyle changes that keep your weight in check. It comes down to exercising more and eating a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and veggies.
A daily run or spin class is great for your heart, but cardio workouts alone won’t do much for your waist. “You need to do a combination of weights and cardiovascular training,” Sangeeta Kashyap, MD, an endocrinologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. Strength training increases muscle mass, which sets your body up to burn more fat.
“Muscle burns more calories than fat, and therefore you naturally burn more calories throughout the day by having more muscle,” Kate Patton, RD, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. Patton recommends 250 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 125 minutes of high-intensity exercise a week.
Dr. Cheskin also agrees strength training is the way to go, as it builds muscle. “When you build muscle, you tend to replace fat with that muscle,” he says.
“Refined grains like white bread, crackers, and chips, as well as refined sugars in sweetened drinks and desserts, increase inflammation in our bodies,” says Patton. “Belly fat is associated with inflammation, so eating too many processed foods will hinder your ability to lose belly fat.” Natural foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are full of antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory properties and may therefore actually prevent belly fat, Patton says.
The body doesn’t react to all fats in the same way. Research correlates high intake of saturated fat (the kind in meat and dairy) to increased visceral fat, says Patton. On the other hand, monounsaturated fats (the kind in olive oil and avocados) and specific types of polyunsaturated fats (mainly omega-3s, found in walnuts, sunflower seeds, and fatty fish like salmon) have anti-inflammatory effects in the body, and if eaten in proper portions may do your body good. But Patton warns that eating too much fat of any kind increases your calorie intake and could lead to weight gain, so enjoy healthy fats in moderation.
To banish stubborn belly fat, you have to ramp up your workouts. A study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that people who completed a high-intensity workout regimen lost more belly fat than those who followed a low-intensity plan. (In fact, the low-intensity exercises experienced no significant changes at all.) Subsequent studies have substantiated the benefits of brief bouts of hard training. “You need to exercise at full intensity because the end goal is to burn more calories, and high intensity exercise does just that,” Natalie Jill, a San Diego-based certified personal trainer, tells Health. High intensity workouts mean you’re going all out for as long as you can. If this sounds intimidating, think of it this way: you’ll burn more calories in less time.
Doing crunches every morning and every night? It’s time to switch it up! When you’re down to your final inches of belly fat, countless crunches won’t necessarily help you reveal a six-pack. “You can’t spot reduce,” Jill says. In other words, you can’t tell your body where to lose fat—even if you exercise your abs every day, that doesn’t always make ’em flatter.
Instead, Jill suggests doing functional exercises that use the muscles of your entire core—abdominals, back, pelvic, obliques—as well as other body parts. “These exercises use more muscles, so there is a higher rate of calorie burn while you are doing them,” she says. Planks are her favorite functional exercise—they activate not just your core muscles but also your arm, leg, and butt muscles. Add some movement to the plank, with shoulder taps or leg lifts, and you up the ante even more.
Tight deadlines, bills, your kids—whatever your source of stress, having too much of it may make it harder for you to drop unwanted pounds, especially from your middle. And it’s not just because you tend to reach for high-fat, high-calorie fare when you’re stressed, though that’s part of it. It’s also due to the stress hormone cortisol, which may increase the amount of fat your body clings to and enlarge your fat cells. Higher levels of cortisol have been linked to more visceral fat.
If you’re among the 30% of Americans who sleep less than six hours a night, here’s one simple way to reduce your waistline: catch more Zs. A 16-year study of almost 70,000 women found that those who slept five hours or less a night were 30% more likely to gain 30 or more pounds than those who slept 7 hours. The National Institutes of Health suggest adults sleep seven to eight hours a night.
A smaller study also found that those who slept 4.5 hours a night had higher levels of the brain chemicals that affect appetite and our reward systems, compared to those who slept 8.5 hours. That means they ate more food between meals and were drawn to junk options.
If you tend to pack the pounds around your middle rather than your hips and thighs, then you’re known as apple-shaped. This genetic predisposition means ridding yourself of belly fat will be harder, Dr. Kashyap says, but not impossible.
Again, you can’t lose fat only on a certain part of your body. So if your genetics have you carrying it around your middle, focus on losing weight all over, says Dr. Cheskin.
Says About Your Own Health
If your testosterone levels are high—something that can occur with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)—you might have difficulty losing weight. “If you’re an apple shape and overweight, too, it’s a good idea to see your doctor,” Dr. Kashyap says, since there may also be a chance that you are prediabetic or diabetic.
Dr. Cheskin also says men tend to carry more fat in their bellies than women, who typically find more weight around their lower half.
Are you committed to the work needed to lose belly fat? “Reducing belly fat takes a combination approach of a low-calorie diet that is high in fiber and low in carbohydrates and sugar along with cardiovascular and weight training,” Dr. Kashyap says. “If you are willing to do the work, you can move past genetics and lose it.”