It's safe to say that most of us would like to lose a few pounds. With sedentary habits at an all-time high (average Americans spend 21 hours per day sitting or sleeping) and cheap, high-calorie food widely available, the majority of Americans are struggling to keep the numbers on the scale from creeping up year after year. However, there is one problem area that should be of particular concern: how to lose belly fat.
What is belly fat?
Belly fat is, quite simply, the fat deposits that collect in your abdomen — what men might call a "beer gut" and women often refer to as a "muffin top." However, belly fat is not just the jiggly stuff that you can grab in your hand, known as subcutaneous fat. A deeper layer of fat, called visceral fat, surrounds your internal organs. The catch is that visceral fat is often not visible. In fact, your abdomen may conceal high levels of visceral fat even if you're a healthy weight for your age and height.
Why is belly fat dangerous?
Nobody wants to have a muffin top, but the downsides of belly fat go far beyond appearances. Unlike subcutaneous fat, visceral fat is metabolically active — meaning it behaves like an endocrine organ, releasing hormones and inflammatory chemicals (cytokines) that interfere with your body's normal hormonal function.
Because hormones regulate most major bodily functions — including appetite, weight, mood, and brain function — the influx of hormones and cytokines from visceral fat poses substantial health risks. The dangers of excess belly fat include:
- Increased risk for Type II diabetes
- Increased risk for insulin resistance
- Increased risk for heart disease and strokes
- Elevated cancer risk
- Higher rates of depression
- 3x greater risk for developing dementia
- Compromised lung function
Why is it so hard to lose belly fat?
Ever wondered how to lose belly fat effectively — or why it's so hard? Dr. Luke James of UK-based health insurance company Bupa explains, "To put it simply: it's more difficult to shift belly fat because it has a higher amount of fat cells that don't respond as easily to the fat-breakdown process (lipolysis)."
We have two types of fat cells in our body: alpha cells and beta cells. Alpha cells accelerate the weight-loss process, while beta cells inhibit the process, making it harder to shed pounds. Areas with beta cells will be more resistant to weight loss, which is why you'll see results in your face, legs, and arms first — they have higher alpha cell counts.
Meanwhile, your hips, thighs, and belly have more beta cells, which is why fat tends to cling to those areas. According to Dr. Luke, it may take as long as three months to start noticing changes in your belly fat because the fat there is so much harder to break down.
How to lose belly fat naturally
While subcutaneous fat stubbornly resists weight-loss efforts, visceral fat is actually quite responsive to the only proven recipe for natural weight loss: control caloric intake, limit unhealthy substances, and engage in calorie-burning exercise.
- Reduce intake of refined sugar and carbohydrates. Sugar is everywhere in today's supermarkets, in ketchup, cereal, protein bars, and even soup. Look at the labels and opt for no-sugar-added products.
- Limit alcohol consumption to Adults who consumed less than one drink per day were found to have less belly fat than those who drank less often but consumed more when they drank. Alcohol is high in empty calories and may suppress fat burning.
- Increase soluble fiber intake. An observational study found that for every 10% increase in soluble fiber intake, belly fat decreased by 3.7% over five years. Eat plenty of non-starchy veggies, beans, peas, whole grains, and avocados.
- Eat plenty of protein. Many studies have found that people who eat adequate amounts of protein have less belly fat than people who consume less protein.
- Swap trans fats for healthy fats. Consuming healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (like olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish) have anti-inflammatory effects that can help you lose belly fat. Meanwhile, trans fats are linked to abdominal fat gain. Over-consuming any fat can cause weight gain, so don't add fat to your diet — simply replace any trans fats with healthier fats.
- Reduce stress levels. Stress triggers the release of cortisol (known as the stress hormone), which increases appetite and drives abdominal fat storage. People with more abdominal fat also produce more cortisol in response to stress, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
- Combine cardio and strength training. Studies show that the most effective exercise regimen for targeting belly fat is a combination of cardio and strength training. Aerobic exercise burns calories during the workout while strength training increases muscle mass, which burns more calories at rest.
- Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is essential for overall health, and also plays a role in body composition. A study that followed 68,000 women for 16 years found that women who slept less than five hours a night were more likely to gain weight than women who got seven hours or more of shut-eye.
- Move more in general. It's no secret that most of us aren't come close to our daily 10,000 steps. Many studies have found that even getting your recommended amount of exercise is not enough to compensate from being sedentary the rest of the day. In fact, inactivity is more closely linked to weight gain and obesity than caloric intake.
No single diet or lifestyle change is going to be a quick fix. But when you add them together, these changes are the most effective way to lose belly fat — and keep it off. And it's well worth the effort. Keeping your visceral fat levels in check will help you live longer and enjoy more healthy life years (years without disability or disease).