If you’ve ever decided to jump into a weight loss routine and started to see success, chances are you’ve dealt with a common roadblock: stubborn belly fat. Maybe you’ve tried every trick and unsustainable quick-fix in the book (or Internet) to try to get rid of it, or maybe you’ve brushed it off, considering it to be no big deal. But belly fat is the one type of fat that doctors worry about, as it can be an indicator of other serious health problems. And bumping into a fat-loss plan, it’s key to understand what belly fat is,what causes it, and why it gives doctors pause.
“Belly fat, also called visceral fat, is one of the more concerning types of weight gain,” explains Zayd Nashaat, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Austin Regional Clinic in Austin, Texas. “[People] with relatively normal body weight except around the belly tend to have a greater risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, liver issues, and cancer, among other health issues.”
The reason visceral fat is believed to cause more health risk factors is because it surrounds the organs and increases insulin resistance, he continues.
“Specifically, waist measurements of more than 35 inches for a woman or more than 40 inches for a man indicate an increased risk for developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.”
So what can you do to lose belly fat? Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that weight loss is triggered by a healthier diet and maintained by exercise, Dr. Nashaat says. Recommended strategies are the same for overall weight-loss focused on lifestyle changes: eating healthier and moving more, and doing it consistently.
“Dietary adherence is an important predictor of weight loss, regardless of the type of diet chosen, and lifestyle modification should be the goal rather than a short-term change,” he says. “Sustainable weight loss is a marathon, not a sprint and it is crucial to make changes that you can maintain long term.”
Read on to see exactly how to take off stubborn belly fat.
How much belly fat is too much?
Guys who have a waist circumference greater than 40 inches (interestingly, that’s true no matter how tall you are) are at a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease, according to the National Institute of Health.
To figure out what yours is, you need to measure at the right place. Place a tape measure around the middle of your waist, just above the hipb ones, advises the NIH.
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How to lose stubborn belly fat
Ok, so what should you do if your waist is above that 40-inch mark? Use these lifestyle tweaks to trim down belly fat and help your overall health improve, as well.
Reduce calories the smart way
You can’t force fat reduction in one area of your body, says W. Scott Butsch, M.D., Director of Obesity Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Instead, you’ll want to focus on reducing overall calories. “Weight loss in general should lead to a decrease in belly fat,” he says.
Instead of following some draconian calorie-slashing program, simply work on increasing the proportion of nutritious, low-calorie foods that fill your plate and decreasing foods that contain lots of calories and less nutrition. You know what that means: Pile on more fresh fruits and veggies (especially green, non-starchy ones—see more below), as well as lean protein and good fats, like chicken, fish, beans and legumes. This can help you feel satisfied while also losing belly fat.
Eat more protein
Protein increases hormones that make you feel satiated, so you feel fuller for longer periods of time than you might with other foods. That means you’ll go back to the fridge less frequently, and your stubborn belly fat will start melting.
Eat more fruits and vegetables
They’re nutrient dense and provide plenty of fiber, to promote good gastrointestinal health, Dr. Nashaat says. You’ll also get full on fewer calories.
Try loading up half your plate with vegetables, or begin every meal with a salad. (No boring lettuce and tomato deal needed—keep it interesting with all kinds of colors and textures, like roasted peppers or artichokes from a can, olives, bell peppers, carrots, sliced grapes, and the like. The options are limitless.)
Take your vegetable game up a notch by eating ones that are high in water content, like cucumbers, celery, bok choy, and zucchini, which help fill you up.
Drink less alcohol
Kazlauskaite says guys who want to reduce belly fat should watch how much alcohol they consume. Aside from the obvious—empty calories—alcohol can lower inhibitions and make you reach for more empty calories. Not what you’re going for.
Get more exercise
Even being active in daily life—all that stuff about getting up from your chair more frequently, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking the car far away from the store—can help burn calories. To really shed fat like you want to, recent research suggests that 300 minutes a week of moderate activity (that’s activity that gets your heart rate up a little bit, not just getting-up-from-your-chair activity) may help with weight loss. That’s twice as much as the standard 150 minutes a week that’s recommended by the CDC for a serious number of health benefits, and it might take some planning. But brisk walks count toward it.
Dr. Nashaat recommends exercising every day, ideally for at least 30 minutes.
“This can be split into smaller segments, such as a 15-minute walk in the morning and a 15-minute in the evening,” he says. “Studies have shown that 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week is essential to improve overall health, and there is no question that a sedentary lifestyle (lots of sitting behind a desk) leads to higher rates of obesity.”
Also consider incorporating HIIT training, which focuses on bouts of high intensity work, followed by brief rest, to get that heart rate up fast and to blast calories in a shorter amount of time.
Add resistance training
Clinically, Butsch says many of his patients notice a decrease in belly fat when they incorporate strength training. In fact, obese adolescents who incorporated both aerobic and strength training into their workouts lost the highest amounts of visceral fat, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.
Limit sugary drinks
Sugar from juice and sodas are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, which spikes insulin, says Kazlauskaite. And studies show that frequently drinking sugar-sweetened beverages—the leading source of sugar in the American diet—is linked to weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
Instead, focus on staying hydrated and drinking more water to replace any sodas, even diet ones, Dr. Nashaat adds.
Get your sugar from whole foods
Eating an apple is different from drinking a glass of apple juice, explains Kazlauskaite.
That’s because you consume more nutrients like fiber when you consume the food in its natural form, she says. Plus, the process of chewing and consuming the food more slowly can help keep you full. “When you eat an apple, you eat slower,” she says. “Your body has more time to digest it.”
Avoid processed foods
Crackers, chips, and frozen dinners tend to have higher rates of saturated fats and higher sodium content, Dr. Nashaat says. Foods with saturated fats and high sodium content also increase your chances of having higher blood pressure, and foods that are too high in sodium can increase bloating and fluid retention, which also won’t help with minimizing the appearance of stubborn belly fat.
Add in healthy fats
“Healthier fats such as those found in nuts and avocados are found to produce a response that reduces inflammation (typically caused by saturated fats) and promotes a healthier cardiovascular and immune systems,” adds Dr. Nashaat.
Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, is linked to a higher percent of belly fat and weight gain. In fact, people who have high levels of cortisol for long periods of time are more likely to develop abdominal obesity, according to a 2018 review of studies published in Current Obesity Reports.
Butsch says simple activities like yoga, meditation, or simply avoiding conflict can help keep your waistline where your health benefits. “I think even just taking the higher road in an argument [helps],” he says. Whatever route you take, focus on reducing overall stress in your life. It might not only help your waistline; it could benefit the rest of your life as well.
Melissa Matthews is the Health Writer at Men’s Health, covering the latest in food, nutrition, and health.
Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Women’s Health, she has contributed health, fitness and wellness content to Runner’s World, SELF, Prevention, Healthline, and POPSUGAR, among other publications. She is also a 10-time marathoner, frequent traveler and avid amateur baker.