That’s because women tend to store more temporary fat in their bellies. “The fat stores are gained and lost,” says Lawrence Cheskin, MD, chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University and director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. “By and large, belly fat comes off easier in the sense that it comes off first. That’s where a good amount of the fat is lost from.”
But just because belly fat comes off a bit more easily doesn’t make it less dangerous. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. “Belly fat is, unfortunately, the most dangerous location to store fat,” says Dr. Cheskin. Because belly fat—also known as visceral fat, or the deep abdominal fat that surrounds your organs—is more temporary, it’s more active in terms of circulating in the bloodstream. That means it’s likely to raise the amount of fat in your blood (known as blood lipid levels) and increase your blood sugar levels, which as a result raises your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
And unfortunately, you can’t target fat loss on specific parts of your body, including your belly. “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 founder of Premier Mind and Body.
So if you want to lose that extra layer of tummy, it’s going to require more than going full speed ahead with the crunches. “It’s got to be more losing fat as a whole,” says Chris Gagliardi, a certified personal trainer at the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Here, the best ways to lose belly fat once and for all.
Eat fibre like you mean it
Foods that are high in refined carbs and sugar don’t actually tame your hunger, so you end up reaching for more. Hello, weight gain.
Instead, load up on foods high in fibre like whole grain breads, oats, vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, and chia seeds. “They fill you up more,” says Dr. Cheskin, since fibre helps slow your digestion. The result? You’ll be less likely to compensate with less healthful dishes that lead to weight gain, especially in your middle.
Plus, 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 fibre intake can still lead to weight loss. Women should aim for at least 25 grams of fibre per day (based on a 2,000-calorie) diet, according to the most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
Take a daily walk
If you don’t have an established exercise routine, simply walking is the best first step toward weight loss. “Walking is a pretty good entry point for people,” says Gagliardi. This is particularly true if you have been out of the gym for a while and want to ease back into a workout routine. 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. And the truth is, one of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to weight loss is that they try to do too much too soon and inevitably get burnt out.
“Starting slow and working your way up is better than overdoing it and giving up,” says Gagliardi. “I like the idea of attaching the new behaviour of taking a walk to an existing behaviour.” 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.
Although you do want to increase your walking over time, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be working your way up to a more intensive form of cardio like swimming or running. “Moving on to new exercises is not something someone should feel they have to do unless their goals change and a new exercise is needed to support those goals,” says Gagliardi. “Walking alone can be progressed by changing the distance, speed, terrain, and by adding intervals.”
Start 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. In fact, strength training is one of the few activities you can do to spike the amount of calories you burn, even after you’re done with your workout. 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, plan to lift weights 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 the groceries.
Down enough protein—especially before exercise
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 after because we’re super hungry. The result? You eat more calories than you burn and end up with excess belly fat.
To prevent yourself from feeling hungry after a workout, eat a snack with at least 12 grams of protein before your workout to help curb any hunger that might approach as you burn calories, says Dr. Cheskin.
And if you’re still hungry after your workout? First, check in with yourself and make sure it’s actual hunger, says Dr. Cheskin. Then, eat a protein-rich snack that also includes some carbs, like a protein bar with whole grains. “Your body will need some carbohydrates, especially after a long aerobic workout,” he explains.
Target your belly with abs exercises
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.”
To start off, aim to do ab work 3 or 4 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 3 or 4 times a week, you should still be activating your core (aka, tightening your ab muscles) in every workout you do, says Gagliardi.
The best part is that you don’t need a fancy gym memberships, since 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.
Say goodbye to 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 behavioural 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.
Make sleep a priority
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 UK 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 7 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 7 or 8 hours, says Dr. Cheskin.
Skip the booze
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 booze is a big one.
Research 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.
Cook your own meals
Spending more time in the kitchen can help you shed belly fat, as long as you’re cooking with the right foods, according to one 2017 study. After analyzing data from more than 11,000 men and women, UK researchers found that people who ate more than five homemade meals per week were 28 per cent less likely to have a high body mass index, and 24 per cent 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.
Try a low-carb diet
There’s a reason low-carb diets have made a huge comeback: they work for many people. “By and large, the scientific studies that are controlled clinical trials tend to show that the low-carb dieting is better than the low-fat dieting for the average person for initially losing weight,” says Dr. Cheskin.
That’s because it theoretically causes a mild ketosis (yep, the basis of the keto diet), which is a fat-burning state that should make you feel less hungry. The key in being successful with a low-carb diet (especially if you’re used to a more high-carb lifestyle) is to compensate for those lost carbs with protein-rich foods, says Dr. Cheskin. That way, your volume of food stays the same, but you’re doing it healthfully rather than in a way that exacerbates your weight gain.
Plus, a low-carb diet helps decrease your overall calorie intake since you’re replacing unsatisfying calories with more filling ones. Although there’s no standard definition for what “low-carb” really means, Dr. Cheskin says you’ll typically aim for less than 60 grams of carbs per day.
Do the math and track your calories
If you’re a number-cruncher type, incorporating that mentality into your weight loss program could seriously help you see the improvements you want to in your middle. After all, the most basic approach to weight loss is burning more calories than you consume.
For instance, since 3,500 calories equals .5kg of fat, says Gagliardi, you can use apps—or even just pen and paper—to figure out how many calories you need to either 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 7 days a week, that would lead to 3,500 calories in a week and .5kg of weight loss,” says Gagliardi.
But even if you don’t decide to track calories through an app like MyFitnessPal, it’s still a good idea to keep some kind of gauge on what you’re taking in. That could be a photo journal if it’s easier for you to snap a pic than write something down, or it could even be a mental exercise of cutting back on unnecessary eats.
“For some people, it’s knowing, ‘Typically I eat a whole sandwich,’” says Gagliardi. “‘Now, I’m going to make the decision to eat half a sandwich at lunch and save the other half for my dinner and essentially cut my calories in half. And they feel good about that. They’re not having to do math.”
Raise your awareness
A big part of weight loss is simply being aware of the decisions you’re making as to what you’re putting in your body and the activities you’re taking part in. “One of the big things I focus on is while it is about the foods you’re eating or the lack of activity, that it’s more about the behaviour,” says Gagliardi.
For example, you might not realize just how much you eat when you go out to happy hour with friends. But if you take the split second to take a step back and make yourself aware of that fact, you’re more able to make a healthy decision. “The awareness and then planning and coming up with strategies for what else I can be doing—that might give me the same benefit of eating those comfort foods that make me feel better,” says Gagliardi.
Just keep in mind that in order to see real results with slimming your belly, it really comes down to three things: nutrition, exercise, and dedication. “Dropping body fat and developing a lean toned stomach is a 3-fold approach that requires consistency and discipline,” says DiVecchio.
This article originally appeared on Prevention US.
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