Washboard abs, a toned tummy and a flat stomach are the dreams for many. While a trim middle can be difficult to achieve without a strict lifestyle and a dose of favorable genetics, there are good reasons to reduce your belly fat—and they have much more to do with your overall health than with the way you look.
5 Expert-Backed Ways to Reduce Belly Fat
While it’s not possible to spot-reduce fat on any particular area of your body, there are strategies you can use to reduce your overall body fat and thus your belly fat. featured partner offer Partner Offers feature brands who paid Forbes Health to appear at the top of our list. While this may influence where their products or services appear on our site, it in no way affects our ratings, which are based on thorough research, solid methodologies and expert advice. Our partners cannot pay us to guarantee favorable reviews of their products or services
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Partner Offers feature brands who paid Forbes Health to appear at the top of our list. While this may influence where their products or services appear on our site, it in no way affects our ratings, which are based on thorough research, solid methodologies and expert advice. Our partners cannot pay us to guarantee favorable reviews of their products or services
1. Banish Midnight Snacking
Who hasn’t found a bowl of cereal to taste better in the wee hours of the night rather than after the sun comes up? Still, it might be better to close your eating window as early in the day as is feasible for you.
“Research has shown that eating according to your body clock and natural circadian rhythms helps reduce fat storage,” says registered dietitian Elizabeth Ward, co-author of The Menopause Diet Plan: A Natural Guide to Hormones, Health, and Happiness. “Eating earlier in the day when your body is much better at processing food will help you control your weight. If you skew your calorie intake to later in the day, it’s going to be difficult for you to prevent weight gain.”
She explains this is a hormonal response related to insulin, which does a better job of clearing glucose from the blood earlier in the day. Ward’s advice? Shut down any snacking after dinner.
2. Carefully Consider Your Carbs
While dietary fat has gotten a bad rap over the years, it’s more likely that carbohydrates are the culprit of a growing waistline.
“There’s a general misunderstanding among people who have cholesterol problems that it’s simply through consumption of fat,” says internist Spencer Kroll, M.D., who specializes in cholesterol and lipid diseases in his private medical practice in Marlboro, New Jersey. “The overconsumption of carbohydrates and processed foods are the primary contributors to the accumulation of abdominal fat. I’ve spent years trying to change people’s ideas that it’s not just about ice cream and heavy cuts of meat—it’s really about carb modification.”
You don’t necessarily have to follow a low-carb eating style, but it is a good idea to reduce your consumption of simple carbs, such as fruit juice and cookies. Instead, look for carbohydrates that also come with fiber like vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains. Aim to consume at least 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day, recommends Ward.
You may also want to experiment with your starch intake. While some people do well with potatoes, oats, rice and whole wheat bread, others don’t. “Starch can be like rocket fuel to drive insulin resistance,” says Dr. Kroll. When your body doesn’t respond well to insulin, this can lead to pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes.
3. Engage In Cardio And Strength Training
Exercise is a key component of weight loss, along with belly fat reduction specifically. A mix of resistance training and aerobic activity will give you the most benefits.
Research is still underway about the optimal intensity and duration of exercise, but a good starting point is to follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (think fast walking and mellow bike rides) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (like running and playing basketball) a week, along with at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities.
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4. Fill Your Plate With Protein
Including lean protein on your plate every time you eat helps you feel full. Aim to consume at least 20 to 30 grams of protein with each meal and 10 grams of protein with each snack, recommends Ward. “People who get enough protein feel very satisfied, and they’re not looking for all the refined carbohydrates—chips, cookies, cake, candies—or foods that have trans fats like the pastries you’d buy at a bakery or French fries,” she says.
5. Prioritize Getting Good Sleep
Just as a bad night’s sleep can ruin your whole day, a track record of bad sleep can mess with a lot of other aspects of your life—and one of those might just be belly fat.
A study in Sleep found routinely logging less than five hours of sleep a night to be associated with a significant increase in both visceral and subcutaneous fat accumulation among adults younger than 40Hairston KG, Bryer-Ash M, Norris JM, Haffner S, Bowden DW, Wagenknecht LE. Sleep duration and five-year abdominal fat accumulation in a minority cohort: the IRAS family study. Sleep. 2010;33(3):289-295. .
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What Is Belly Fat?
Not all belly fat is created equal. The fat just under the skin—called subcutaneous fat—is what causes that bulge over your waistband. You may not like the way it looks, but it’s less dangerous than visceral fat, which resides deep in the abdominal area and is associated with heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
“It [visceral fat] is metabolically active fat and secretes different hormones than other fat,” says Dr. Kroll. “Because of its location close to the portal vein, the main vein where everything that goes through our intestines is absorbed, it has a significant effect on our metabolism.”
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People with higher levels of visceral fat are more likely to suffer from a variety of conditions, including high blood pressure and colorectal cancer. “Abdominal fat can release more inflammatory cytokines into the bloodstream, so if someone with a lot of visceral fat were to have a heart attack or stroke, more damage could occur,” says Dr. Kroll. “In a pro-inflammatory state, there’s also more chance for a blood clot to form as the result of a small injury, increasing the risk of blood clots and strokes.”
Healthy Belly Fat
Fat is a normal part of the body—but how much is too much? Visceral fat is tricky to detect because you can’t see it. If you pinch your stomach, it’s subcutaneous fat you’re feeling. That said, there is a correlation, albeit not perfect, between waist circumference and visceral fat.
An easy, at-home way to find out if you may have too much visceral fat is to measure your waist. Pull a tape measure above your hip bones, level with your belly button. Breathe normally, making sure not to hold your breath. A good rule of thumb is that men should aim to have a waist circumference of less than 40 inches while women should measure less than 35 inches. (For Asian Americans, men should aim for less than 35.5 inches, and women should aim for less than 31.5 inches.)
Now, it’s possible to have too much visceral fat without a bigger waist circumference, which can be revealed through bloodwork. “Insulin resistance, high triglyceride levels and mild liver enzyme abnormalities are all signals that a person has too much metabolically active fat in their body, which is generally manifested in their abdomen,” says Dr. Kroll.
How Long Does It Take to Lose Belly Fat?
How quickly you lose belly fat depends on myriad factors, including whether you make lifestyle modifications (such as those listed above), genetics, age and more. However, there’s an element of arithmetic to determining how quickly you can lose body fat in a safe and effective way, which ultimately leads to trimming excess abdominal fat.
To lose 1 pound of fat, you need to burn 3,500 more calories than you eat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). By reducing your caloric intake by 500 calories per day—either by eating fewer calories or exercising more (or a combination of the two)—you can lose 1 pound of fat in one week. People who lose weight gradually (1 to 2 pounds a week) tend to keep the weight off more successfully than those who lose weight more rapidly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
With that math in mind, you can set a goal of how much belly fat you want to lose over a specific amount of time, keeping in mind that 1 to 2 pounds a week is considered healthy and sustainable weight loss. Also, it’s important to remember you can’t spot-reduce fat on any particular area of your body—weight loss occurs comprehensively rather than around your midsection specifically. Over time, you’ll see the results in your midsection in addition to other areas of your body where body fat is stored.
Can You Lose Belly Fat Overnight?
While nothing causes belly fat to melt away overnight, there are certain lifestyle modifications you can make to help your metabolism burn fat efficiently, even while at rest.
Getting enough quality sleep is paramount when it comes to health, including maintaining a healthy weight. Studies connect poor sleep to weight gain, so zeroing in on good shut-eye can help when it comes to losing weight, including belly fat.
Additionally, following Ward’s advice of limiting after-dinner snacking can help optimize digestion, which is beneficial when it comes to losing belly fat.
What Is the Best Diet to Lose Belly Fat?
There’s no single best diet when it comes to weight loss, including reducing belly fat, and many popular diets that claim to support rapid weight loss aren;t backed by science, according to a 2020 study in Nutrition. In fact, a 2021 review in the Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome concluded that weight loss strategies—including diet—should be tailored to individuals rather than use a “one-size-fits-all” mentalityKim JY. Optimal Diet Strategies for Weight Loss and Weight Loss Maintenance. J Obes Metab Syndr. 2021;30;30(1):20-31.. .
Researchers agree that a key component of weight loss is a calorie deficit, or burning more calories than you consume. That being said, the most successful diet is one you will stick to because it includes foods you like to eat and fits your overall lifestyle. There’s a wide range of health-promoting diets that not only supply your body with important nutrients, but also support weight loss goals. The key is finding the one that works best for you.
And when you find a diet or food plan that works for you, keeping track of what you eat with a food log or journal may help with your weight loss progress. A study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found participants who self-monitored their own weight loss progress, which included logging food at least three to five times a week, were more likely to see positive weight loss progress at six months than those who didn’t track their progressPainter SL, Ahmed R, Hill JO, et al. What Matters in Weight Loss? An In-Depth Analysis of Self-Monitoring. J Med Internet Res. 2017;12;19(5):e160. .
How Much Exercise Does It Take to Lose Belly Fat?
Incorporating exercise into your wellness routine in tandem with appropriate dietary changes is paramount when it comes to sustainable weight loss, and the overall health benefits of regular exercise extend beyond shedding pounds—from lowering cholesterol and blood glucose levels to improving insulin resistance. The question is: How much exercise is enough?
A 2016 review in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine found that without changes to the amount of calories consumed per day, low-intensity exercise for 60 minutes most days of the week resulted in weight loss of .5 pounds per week. The same review found exercising at a higher intensity or for a longer duration could result in losing up to 3 pounds per weekHiggins J, Higgins L. Prescribing exercise to help your patients lose weight. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 2016;83(2).. .
As with diet, consistency is key when it comes to exercise when your goal is to lose weight, including belly fat. Committing to low- to moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week could help you see results when it comes to losing excess weight in your midsection.
If you’re a newcomer to exercise, speak with your health care provider to first determine safe and sustainable exercise intensities, durations and formats for you.
What Is the Best Exercise to Lose Belly Fat?
If reducing overall body fat, including belly fat, is your ultimate goal, aerobic exercises that increase your heart rate, such as walking, running or swimming, and aerobic exercise combined with strength training are the gold standards when it comes to exercise that supports weight loss. Luckily, there are lots of options when it comes to incorporating cardio into your workout regimen, including:
- Jogging or running
- Jumping rope
- Using an elliptical machine
- Playing sports that require frequent movement, such as tennis or soccer
If you want to increase lean muscle mass in addition to losing fat mass, adding strength training—specifically resistance training—to your cardio workouts can be particularly effective.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the best way to lose belly fat?
The best way to lose belly fat is through a combination of lifestyle changes, including a balanced diet, regular aerobic exercise and high-quality sleep. Keep in mind that gradual weight loss is the most healthy and sustainable way to lose weight and keep it off.
Why can’t I lose belly fat?
If you’re having trouble losing belly fat in spite of altering your diet, exercise routine and sleep habits, consider speaking with your doctor to determine whether there might be an underlying cause contributing to stubborn body fat.
Can you use apple cider vinegar to lose belly fat?
Although some research suggests that apple cider vinegar may positively contribute to weight loss, in addition to its other health benefits, more research is needed to confirm this connection. Consuming apple cider vinegar without making other lifestyle modifications is unlikely to contribute significantly to a reduction in belly fat.