Excess belly fat is one of those awful things that sneaks up on you: It’s unsightly, hard to lose, and harmful to your health.
If you’ve been surprised to realize that your belly is bigger than you thought, you’re not alone. Excess belly fat—also known as abdominal obesity—is a rapidly growing problem in the Western world with rates increasing from 46 to 55 percent over the first decade of the 21st century. Typically thought to affect aging adults, abdominal obesity is increasingly impacting younger individuals, with 24 percent of men and 41 percent of women in their 20s having excess belly fat.
There is good news and bad news regarding abdominal obesity. First, the bad: Belly fat releases harmful inflammatory compounds called adipokines that increase risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Belly fat impairs glucose regulation and appetite control, predisposing you to overeat and succumb to a vicious spiral of increased fat gain and worsening metabolic health. One survey found that 84 percent of people with excess abdominal fat were metabolically unhealthy.
The good news is that belly fat is easily burned when you are in an energy deficit (consuming fewer calories than you are burning). Both diet and exercise are effective strategies for making this happen. Together, nutrition and exercise pack a powerful punch, quickly restoring your metabolic health.
That said, losing belly fat requires a bit more finesse to your workout and nutrition program than “move more, eat less.” Although starting a walking program may lead to a small reduction in belly fat, sprint interval training is significantly more effective because it leads to changes in how the body uses energy, jacking up your afterburn so the body burns calories at an accelerated rate during the 24-hour recovery period.
Just as specific types of training are more effective for burning belly fat, certain foods and macronutrient profiles are better for shrinking your abdominal area. This article will provide a brief overview of the physiology of belly fat and provide nutrition tips for losing belly fat and keeping it off.
What Is Belly Fat?
Belly fat—also known as visceral fat—is stored below the abdominal muscles and surrounds the internal organs of the body, including the liver, pancreas, and heart. It can also infiltrate those organs, impairing their function and degrading metabolic and cardiovascular function.
Another kind of fat, subcutaneous fat, is the fat that rests below the skin (on top of the abdominal muscles). Although subcutaneous fat is unsightly and can impair athletic performance, it is not as dangerous as visceral fat, which is resistant to insulin and releases messengers into the blood that cause inflammation and harm tissue.
How To Assess Belly Fat
In comparison to the rest of the body, visceral fat takes up a relatively small part of body mass, making it difficult to assess with a scale. Because it resides deep inside the body, you can’t monitor it with body fat calipers. Instead, visceral fat can be assessed by clinic-based measures such as MRI, CT scan, or DEXA, or the inexpensive and accessible waist circumference measurement.
Waist circumference measurements are just what they sound like: You measure your waist with a tape measure and monitor changes, using reference cut off point to assess for abdominal obesity based on sex and ethnicity.
The U.S. National Institute of Health recommends measuring waist circumference at the top of the iliac crest (hip bone). Abdominal obesity is classified as a waist larger than 102 cm for men and 88 cm for women.
The World Health Organization guidelines, which are used for much of the world outside the U.S., recommends measuring midway between the lower rib and the iliac crest. At this site, abdominal obesity is classified as a waist larger than 94 cm for men and 80 cm for women.
The key to success with waist measurements is to pick an approach, identify the correct anatomical site, and hit it every time you measure.
How Hormone Imbalances Impact Abdominal Obesity
Many people think a growing belly as a side effect of aging. Research shows that between the ages of 25 and 65, belly fat increases more than 200 percent in men and nearly 400 percent in women. However, this increase is NOT guaranteed. Changes in hormones and an increase in sedentary behavior are the main causes of fat gain with aging.
With aging both men and women experience changes in their hormonal environment that predispose them to belly fat gain:
Men often experience a decrease in bioavailable testosterone as they pass age 50, which leads to increased fat storage around the belly.
Women experience a decrease in estrogen during menopause, but testosterone levels are maintained, which means that the ratio between estrogen and testosterone is smaller, putting them at risk of belly fat gain.
Insulin sensitivity decreases as people lose muscle with aging. Older people tend to be more sedentary, which exacerbates both the loss of muscle and the reduction in insulin binding, leading to increased fat gain and changes in hormones that regulate hunger and leads to overeating calories.
The stress hormone cortisol increases, leading the body to deposit fat in the abdominal area. Evolutionarily, this is a protective mechanism because during an energy deficit when food sources are scarce, belly fat is a quick source of fuel for the body.
It’s possible to offset these hormonal changes with lifestyle actions and a smart nutrition plan. What follows are five nutrition tips that will help you lose belly fat.
#1: Design Every Meal Around High-Quality Protein
High-quality protein has several benefits for reducing belly fat:
It preserves muscle mass during weight loss, helping to sustain physical ability and maintain energy expenditure.
It has a satiating effect, reducing appetite and hunger.
It improves blood sugar control and lowers insulin, especially when combined with a whole foods diet that de-emphasizes carbs.
In one study, scientists found that individuals who consumed high-quality protein at every meal had the least belly fat. High-quality protein was defined as protein that contained at least 10 grams of essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein foods) and included mainly animal products, such as seafood, meat, or whey protein.
Use It: Protein should be your first priority when deciding what to eat, even for breakfast. Eggs, yogurt, fish, chicken, beef, and turkey are all top quality high-protein foods to begin a meal with. Avoid processed proteins, such as foods with “added protein,” cereals, bars, crackers, etc.
#2: Replace Refined Carbs & Sugar With Antioxidant-Rich Plants
Replacing refined carbs and added sugar with plant foods that naturally contain fiber is a proven strategy for getting rid of belly fat. Fiber is protective because it has a satiating effect, keeping you full longer. It also leads to a moderate increase in blood glucose in response to carb heavy meals. Additionally many high-fiber foods contain bioactive compounds that improve insulin binding for better metabolic function.
One study found that in a diverse population, subjects who ate more fibrous vegetables, fruits, and legumes had significantly lower belly fat over the 5 year study period. For each 10-gram increase in fiber consumed, the rate of belly fat gain decreased by 3.6 percent over the course of the study.
Use It: Every meal should include a colorful fruit or vegetable: Leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli), dark colored fruits (berries, cherries), peppers, sweet potatoes, green beans, and citrus fruits are just a few of the antioxidant-rich plant foods that pair well with high-quality protein to tamp down inflammation and help you lose belly fat.
#3: Use A Lower Carb Paleo- or Keto-Style Diet
Lower carb diets are very effective for reducing belly fat because they restore insulin sensitivity and decrease hunger. The protein and fiber is very satiating and helps regulate blood sugar. Additionally, these diets eliminate the refined carbs and sugar that are consistently associated with abdominal obesity. Sweets, sugar sweetened beverages, and refined flour are off limits in favor of meat, seafood, vegetables, nuts, and in some cases dairy, seeds, and fruit.
Paleo diets are concentrated on whole foods that were available in the time of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They allow a higher carbohydrate intake than the keto diet, which generally requires carbs to be kept to under 50 grams a day (making up 5 percent of calories) and fat supplying 70 to 80 percent of energy.
Early studies show both are effective for overcoming abdominal obesity: A 2015 review of paleo-style diets found that a paleo intervention produced a greater decrease in waist circumference than low fat diets that follow traditional carb-centric dietary guidelines. Several studies show very low-carb keto diets lead to greater belly fat loss than low-fat interventions. Keto diets are especially effective for maintaining fat loss as long as you maintain ketosis.
Use It: Success with keto or paleo starts by designing meals around whole foods while eliminating all the processed junk that makes up the majority of calories in the average western diet. For paleo, you have flexibility with carb intake as long as you are getting carbs from vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and in some cases legumes and dairy. Meals should be designed around high-quality protein, plant-based carbs, and healthy fat (nuts, avocado, olive or coconut oil, and naturally-occurring animal fats).
For keto, limiting total carbs is important to shift your body from relying on glucose to burning fat-derived ketones for energy. Emphasizing healthy fats is important because a higher fat intake will help the body transition to burning ketones: Meals should still be designed around high-quality protein, lower carb vegetables (or one serving of berries a day), and plenty of healthy fat.
#4: Use Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting, in which you incorporate structured times that you abstain from ingesting calories, is an effective way for reducing belly fat and restoring metabolic health. There are many fasting options but the most user friendly versions include the following:
Time restricted feeding has you limit your eating to an 8- to 12-hour eating window daily, fasting for 12- to 16-hours overnight. Meals during your eating window should be eaten at the same time daily to take advantage of circadian rhythm.
Alternate day fasting has you eating normally on 4 or 5 days a week and then eating 1 to 2 meals supplying around 500 calories on the remaining days. Fast days should be spread out and interspersed with normal eating days to minimize the psychological stress and offset any metabolic slowdown associated with fasting.
Use It: Fasting can be highly effective for lowering abdominal obesity, but use caution if you have a history of disordered eating or find yourself overly preoccupied with food. Overdoing it with fasting can lead to alterations in cortisol and the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, setting you up for problems over the longer term.
#5: Use Green Tea & Coffee
Both green tea and coffee can be your secret weapon when trying to lose belly fat by improving insulin sensitivity and raising motivation to exercise. Green tea takes the cake, having extremely high levels of the catechin antioxidants that promote fat burning. The catechins can also reduce hunger so you eat less, and they inhibit lipase, causing your body to absorb less fat.
Use It: Although the dose of green tea that has been shown to reduce belly fat in studies is more than could be reasonably consumed in a green tea beverage, high-quality supplements can assist at reducing abdominal fat. Nonetheless, scientists suggest that drinking green tea daily as part of a nutrition program targeted at lowering belly fat may work synergistically with other dietary factors. The key is to emphasize a variety high-quality whole foods (protein, plants, healthy fat) while avoiding alcohol, sugar-sweetened beverages, and other processed foods.
Final Words: Belly fat can be tough to lose. By emphasizing a variety of high-quality whole foods (protein, plants, healthy fat) and avoiding alcohol, sugar sweetened beverages, and refined carbs you have a proven template for overcoming abdominal obesity and restoring your health. Remember that exercise makes everything better—be sure to adopt a training program that allows you to have fun, build strength, and recover optimally.