Trying to lose belly fat can be frustrating. The Fitness Nerd takes a look at the best ways to get rid of belly fat and keep your stomach flat … for good.
Hi Fitness Nerd,
I have a question about losing belly fat, and getting in better shape overall. I’m 24 years old and 5′ 7″ if that helps.
So here is my story… All through college, I never weighed more than 145 lbs. (that was at my heaviest). I was competing in the Miss America pageant system, walking back and forth to class, etc. But eating the same as I do now. While this helped keep my belly fat in check — I never really was able to achieve that truly flat belly that I was looking for.
Two years later, I weigh just under 170 lbs. I don’t look that heavy, all the weight is in my buttocks and belly. I went on a special eating program to get ready for the Miss USA pageant a few months ago and was very strict with it for 3 months, brown rice, grilled chicken, eggs, sweet potatoes, green beans, salad, yogurt, and lots of water plus cardio and very small weights every day. I GAINED weight!! (about 10 pounds).
So I got very, very frustrated and quit all together. Now I have a job where I sit at work all the time, and my hours are unusual so it’s difficult for me to workout all the time. Also, I am frustrated with how I look in clothes, really want to lose the belly fat and am ready to do something to change that. I typically just do cardio at the gym, but not as religiously as I could. I get bored with it easily. I do like lifting weights though. Also, I had a personal trainer, but just wasn’t making the progress I wanted. So I stopped that as well.
My diet is pretty off – I still eat a lot of grilled chicken and brown rice (just because I love it). But, my biggest issue is that I don’t eat fruit or veggies at all – except select salads, and green beans. I eat a lot of turkey and cheese sandwiches, pizza, and drink a good bit of Coke. I’m also kind of a picky eater. It’s time for me to change, I just want something that I know will work.
How do I get rid of the belly fat for good? Can I lose belly belly fat, or am I just a lost cause? Thanks for your help!! (Elle — Alabama)
Elle, losing belly fat is right at the top of the list for most people when it comes to fitness goals. So you’re definitely not alone.
The challenge, of course, is that there are no easy, fast, ”silver bullet” solutions to losing belly fat, regardless of what all the “Belly Fat Diet” ads say.
If you are looking for 1 way to lose belly fat, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Also, if you’re looking for the best way to lose belly fat fast, I don’t want to get your hopes up. This is going to take some work and changes on your part. But if you want to succeed …. you will.
If you really want to reduce belly fat, it really takes a combination of diet and exercise — and the most effective combination will vary considerably from person-to-person, as you’ve learned first-hand. While improvements to diet and lots of cardio might help one person get rid of their belly fat, others do better with less cardio, better diet and more weight training.
So the trick is finding what works for you. You can either accomplish this with the help of a good personal trainer (which, unfortunately, you may not have had) or you can try to go it on your own, based on what you learn about yourself and what works.
The good news is that you aren’t hopeless, and there are some pretty effective way to lose belly fat, starting today.
What Causes Belly Fat?
The first thing to understand is what causes people to put on belly fat. Once you know that, the tactics I talk about later will make a lot more sense.
While excess belly fat is now correlated with all kinds of health issues, including increased risk of heart disease, Type II Adult-Onset Diabetes and even increased chances of developing dementia, there are some physiological and evolutionary reasons that humans tend to pack fat into their mid-sections.
Belly Fat: Your Body’s Reserve Gas Tank
Fat is the body’s main store of energy reserves. While the body typically burns carbohydrates for energy first, the amount of carbohydrates your body can store is actually fairly small. So you have to be regularly eating to replenish it. Protein can also be burned for fuel, but it’s better utilized to help maintain and build tissue. So the body doesn’t like to burn it unless it has to.
Fat, on the other hand, can be easily stored for long durations and there really is no limit to the amount of fat the body can sock away for a “rainy day.” In fact, that’s why you put on body fat — it’s the body’s way of storing up energy for those times when food is scarce.
Of course, in most modern societies, we don’t face regular famine like our ancestors did. So food is plentiful, and we don’t need as much stored body fat as people did even as recently as 100 years ago. Ironically, even though we don’t need these fat stores as much, we seem to have more of them than people who did need them in the past. A lot of this also has to do with changes in activity and diet in modern society — but that’s for another post.
Belly Fat Is Supposed To Be A Good Thing?
The human body has a pretty good reason for depositing fat in the belly and mid-section of the body: Fat also serves as an insulator, and because all of your core organs are in your torso, it’s critical that they are protected and insulated.
So the propensity to develop belly fat is programmed into everyone’s genes. But now we have heavy coats to keep us warm, so we don’t rely on belly fat as much to keep our core insulated. In other words, we’ve kind of become out-of-step with our own bodies and adaptations. And that’s why people keep seeing their waist lines increase.
The good news is that genetics aren’t necessarily destiny, so with some adaptations to diet and exercise, we can keep our bellies from getting fatter — and even make them flat.
Lose Your Belly Fat: A Step-by-Step Guide
Losing belly fat and getting a flatter stomach is about activity and calorie-intake.
Eighty percent of your progress will come from focusing on these two things. There are other little advanced tips and tricks that you can try as well, but you need to focus on the fundamentals first. The other stuff can come later.
Since we know a little bit about your specific circumstances, Elle, we’ll tailor this to you somewhat. But these are fundamental steps that anyone should take when trying to get rid of belly fat and get a flatter abdomen. And by following them, most people will experience good results.
First, let’s tackle diet and calories.
Reducing Belly Fat Through Diet
There is a direct relationship between food and belly fat. Your diet plays a huge role in packing on belly fat. And in your case, there are definitely some things you can start doing today to begin the process of whittling that fat away from your mid-section.
Belly Fat Buster #1: Learn How Many Calories You Need
Remember, excess belly fat is caused by excess calories. It’s really as simple as that. Here’s how it works:
- Eat more calories than you body needs for energy across the course of the day, and your body will store those extra calories away as body fat for a rainy day, increasing belly fat. That’s why your belly starts “growing fat.”
- Eat exactly how many calories your body needs to support your activity levels and your body fat levels and belly fat will stay the same.
- Eat less calories than your body needs, and your body will start to tap your fat stores for energy, reducing belly fat.
So clearly, the trick is to determine how many calories you need to maintain your current body fat levels, and then how much you need to reduce them to lose excess belly fat.
The best way to do this is to use a calorie calculator, like the one offered by the Mayo Clinic. Plug in your numbers and it will tell you how many calories you need to maintain your current weight. Then subtract 500 per day to get the amount of calories you’ll need to eat to lose one pound of fat per week. Make that your goal.
In your case Elle, at your height and current weight, you need to be eating about 1600 calories a day to lose 1 lb of fat week. Or, you can eat 1850 calories, and do 250 calories worth of exercise each day to achieve a 500 calorie deficit (250 x 2 = 500.) Make sense?
Belly Fat Buster #2: Track Your Food and Calorie Intake
Once you know how many calories you should be eating to lose a pound of fat a week, you now need to start tracking your food and calories. Yes, this can be a pain initially, but it’s critical, since in our “Super-Size-Me” society, most people underestimate how many calories they are actually consuming each day.
This means measuring out portions — either with an inexpensive food scale or using measuring cups. You won’t necessarily have to do this forever — but at least for 3-4 weeks until you have a sense for how many calories you are actually eating and can reset your idea of portions and how many calories are in certain types of foods.
At the end of the day, try to come in at 500 calories below your maintenance level, or in your case, Elle at around 1600 calories.
Belly Fat Buster #3: Clean Up Your Diet
Now that you know how many calories you need each day to lose your belly fat, and you are tracking what you are eating, it’s time to clean up your diet.
This is actually not as hard as you think, especially if you start by eliminating or reducing the foods that probably caused you to get a fat belly in the first place.
Reduce or eliminate these foods first for the most dramatic results:
- Soda - Nothing but liquid sugar. If you are drinking several cans of soda a day, just eliminating this from your diet can result in several pounds of fat loss within a few weeks. Soda is nutritionally empty and just concentrated calories. Switch to unsweetened tea or coffee or sparkling water instead. Also, if you get bored with plain tap water, try these tricks to make water taste better.
- Sweets: Again, excess sugar and belly fat go hand in hand. Try to reduce or eliminate cookies, cakes, donuts, etc. Find some healthy, sweet substitutes like fruit or try my Healthy No Bake Cookie recipe.
- Fast Food: Fast food is a sure-fire way to eat a lot of calories, simple carbs and fat. While packing your own food is the best approach, sometimes we all have to resort to fast food. So learn the things that fast food joints offer that are healthier, and choose those.
- Junk Food: This is a pretty broad category, but it includes things like potato chips, greasy pizza, corn chips, Cheetos, etc. You get the picture. These foods are highly-processed, have lots of fat and are generally nutritionally empty. So substitute in things like nuts — which are nutritionally-dense and have healthy fats known as MUFAs. MUFAs and belly fat have been shown to have an inverse-relationship: Generally, the more MUFAs in your diet, the less abdominal fat.
- Fried Foods: This includes things like french fries, fried chicken, donuts, deep-fried fish, etc. Avoid them when you can, or use them only as a “treat” for a “cheat meal.”
- Avoid eating too many simple carbs. These include sugar, but also foods like regular pasta, white bread, white rice, sugary or processed cold cereals, etc. You don’t have to stop eating pasta or bread — but substitute in 100% whole grain versions, which actually taste quite good and are more healthy overall.
Belly Fat Buster #4: Learn To Eat Clean
Okay, now that you’ve gotten rid of the worst offenders in your diet, let’s focus on the things you should be eating.
The good news, Elle, is that you are already eating a number of these things — so hopefully just getting the “bad” stuff out will put you back on track for getting that flat belly you want.
Here are a few tips with links to articles that can get you started and help get rid of your unwanted belly fat:
- Adopt a clean eating approach to your diet. That just means trying to eat foods that are as unprocessed as possible — things like whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables and whole, lean meats like chicken breast, turkey breast, seafood and lean cuts of beef and pork.
- Learn the art of food subsitution. By finding healthy foods that mimic some of the qualities of the junkier food you enjoy, you can eat healthier without going crazy or sacrificing too much flavor. And this foods typically will help you melt away belly fat, versus increasing it. One Answer Fitness reader lost 52 lbs just following these substitutions for junk food.
- Learn the Basics of Cooking: Yes, are going to need to learn how to prepare some healthy foods for yourself, so that you aren’t eating fast food all the time or eating out of a can or box. If you don’t know where to start, I would recommend subscribing to something like Clean Eating Magazine, Cooking Light Magazine, Eating Well or Healthy Cooking – which are all excellent publications with very healthy recipes and good tutorials on learning to cook. They also have online versions with free content, so you can use those resources as well.
- Start Packing Your Food: Get a nice insulated lunch bag and start bringing your meals with you to work. When you do cook, you’ll likely have leftovers (or make extra) so that you always have healthy foods to pack the next day. Buy things like chicken breast or whole turkey breasts, roast them and sock them away in the freezer so you have choices when you are pressed for time.
- Keep Healthy Snacks On You At All Times: Always keep “healthy substitutes” on hand wherever you go — in your car, purse or in your desk at work. Things like nuts, dried fruit, low-sugar granola, fresh fruit, or all natural, lower-sugar nutrition bars. This will reduce the temptation to choose less healthy foods when you get hungry.
- Eat frequently.Try to split your meals up into six smallish meals, instead of one or two big ones. Always try to include a complex carb, some lean protein and a little healthy fat. This will keep your blood sugar stable, help you maintain your energy, prevent you from being hungry and over-eating later and ultimately help you lose belly fat.
Exercise To Lose Belly Fat
Okay, now that you’ve got your diet in order, let’s tackle how you can use exercise to lose that stubborn belly fat.
Like a lot of people Elle, your schedule and career makes it challenging to find time to exercise. But without it, you’re not going to get the results you are looking for.
The good news is that if you can spare three hours minimum each week, you can make some real gains in sculpting your body and losing belly fat in the process. If a person has more time available, then they may want to take a slightly different approach, most likely breaking cardio out into a separate workout day. However, I’m going to tailor this more specifically to you and your schedule and likes and dislikes.
What you’ll want to do is focus on a combination of higher-intensity cardio and heavier weight and resistance training. Here are the specific tactics you’ll use to exercise your way to a flat belly:
Step One: Reduce the Duration of Cardio, But Increase the Intensity
You admit that you hate cardio because it “bores you.” So let’s deal with reality here.
Provided you have no health issues preventing this, consider reducing the length and distance of your cardio, and instead try high intensity interval training (HIIT). This will allow you burn the same amount of calories in 25-30 minutes that you would normally burn at a lower intensity in 60 minutes.
Performing HIIT will also free up some time. This will give you 30 minutes to perform weight training, which will be critical to stripping off that belly fat. Whether you want to use the elliptical or a treadmill doesn’t really matter. It’s the intensity that you need to focus on.
At your current height and weight, you can burn around 200 calories in 25-30 minutes of HIIT. And because you spend less time doing this, you’ll be less likely to get bored.
Some research also indicates that HIIT may be more effective at burning belly fat than longer-duration, solid-state exercise. A combination of the two approaches is ideal, and can sometimes break up the monotony of cardio. If you can, perform your cardio after your weight training workout.
You can learn more about how to do high intensity interval training here.
Step Two: Perform a Full Body Workout Three Times a Week
Full-body workouts, where you work each of your main muscle groups in a single workout, three-times a week are often more effective at stripping off body fat, including belly fat, than split-routines.
A full-body workout can help boost your metabolism, release higher levels of growth hormones (which help you increase lean body tissue like muscle) and also burn more calories during exercise, because they are more intense.
They also help keep your physique more balanced and allow you to spend less overall time in the gym — which is important to you because of your schedule.
I would recommend using a modified-version of my full-body workout. Since you will only have 30-35 minutes to perform the workout — versus the recommended hour — I would try doing only two sets of each exercise: a light warm-up set and then a heavier, “working” set. This should allow you to get through it in about 30 minutes, while still achieving similar results to the more extended version. Also, make sure you are tracking your progress with a printable exercise log.
This workout will also burn about 200 calories, provided you don’t take rests between sets and exercises and keep moving. So between the weight training and the HIIT, you’ll burn about 400 calories in an hour. Not bad!
Step Three: Go Heavier With Your Weight and Resistance Training
You mentioned that your trainer had you using light weights and high reps during your weight training.
I’d like you to try something different: After your light warm-up set, choose a weight that causes you to struggle to get another rep done somewhere in the 6-8 rep range. This will help you increase your strength, and will encourage you to put on a little more muscle.
Now, I know that you’re probably concerned about lifting to heavy and becoming “bulky” and that a lot of “toning workouts” say to do lots of reps, but being “toned” is really about reducing body fat levels and increasing muscle. Most women will not put on a lot of muscle, even when training with heavier weights — so set this out of your mind for now.
I know a lot of women who tried to “high rep” their way to a toned body and just spun their wheels for months or years with little progress. After switching to a lower-rep, higher-weight routine, suddenly they start to see results – including less belly fat and lower overall body fat.
You can learn more about why workout routines for toning fail here.
Step Four: Find the Hidden Ways To Exercise Off Belly Fat
One of the things you mentioned is that you are less active than when you were in college.
This is a problem for a lot of people whose careers keep them sitting in a chair all day in front of a computer. However, there are lots of little ways to burn a few extra calories over the course of the day, which can add up over the week and help you lose that belly fat and stay more fit over all:
- Always take the stairs versus the elevator — at work and anywhere
- Park out farther in parking lots, which will force you to walk more
- Stand more: Standing consumes more calories than sitting, and is better for posture (which I’m sure is important for becoming Miss America.) Whenever possible, stand during meetings, at your desk, while on the phone, etc. It also makes you the center of attention, which can put you more in control of meetings and discussions.
- Take Short Walks: Even if you have a hectic schedule at work, there will be down times. Use those opportunities to take a walk around the building or office, or better yet, a short walk outside. Not only will it burn some extra calories, but it can help you “clear your head”, refocus and re-energize yourself.
- Get a Digital Pedometer: Buy and keep an inexpensive digital pedometer on you at all times. It will tally up your steps and movement across the day and show you how many calories you’ve burned. This can be a fun way to keep yourself motivated and measure your progress.
Other Tips for Losing Belly Fat and Keeping It Off
There are a few other things you should keep in mind as you try this approach to reducing belly fat and getting a nice, flat stomach:
- Ignore the Scale: Scale weight is a poor indicator of fitness and body composition. You are much better off looking at body fat percentage. For the first 3-4 weeks, avoid the bathroom scale and instead focus your attention on other progress indicators, like improvements in diet and exercise progress. The scale will just discourage you, when you may actually be making tremendous progress at stripping away belly fat.
- Expect to Gain Weight: Once you do step on the scale at the three week mark, don’t be surprised if you’ve gained weight. That’s fine — you may have just added muscle. The belly fat and body fat will follow — it just takes some time.
- Take Pictures to Chart Your Progress: Losing belly fat takes some time — weeks and sometimes months, not days. Take pictures of yourself and your midsection before you start your program, and then every two weeks there after. Take one from the front, the side and the back. When you line the photos up two or three months later, you’ll likely be shocked at the progress you’ve made. It’s just hard to notice this on a daily basis and seeing how far you’ve come can be very rewarding (and motivating!)
- Consider Using Bodyfat Calipers:Getting rid of belly fat is about … well … getting rid of fat. One of the most effective ways to measure your progress toward this goal is to take regular body fat readings using an inexpensive pair of Accumeasure Body Fat Calipers. This also will get you to focus on losing belly fat, and not scale weight. Take measurements every two weeks and write them down in your training journal or workout log.
- Don’t Expect Ab Crunches To Get You A Flat Belly: Yes, having great abs requires having some muscle there as well. But doing endless crunches and ab work will not help you lose belly fat. Do one good ab exercise each full-body workout and then be done with it. If you want to get more ripped-out, hard abs, focus on that goal after you’ve lost most of the belly fat. It’s hard to do both things at the same time.
- Anticipate Hitting A Plateau: You will eventually hit a fat and weight loss plateau, so just expect it and recognize when it happens. Usually you’ll know because you’ve hit a point where your progress stalls. At that point, you’ll need to shake things up a little bit to break through it. When you do hit that point, check out these tips from breaking a weight and fat loss plateau.
- Play Around With Different Macro Nutrient Ratios: Not everyone responds the same way to protein, carbohydrates and dietary fat. Some people have very few problems losing belly fat eating moderate to high carbohydrates, while other find they are more sensitive to carbs. Since you’ll be tracking your food and macro-nutrients for the first 4-6 weeks of this plan, if you aren’t making progress with your current macro-nutrient mix after 3-4 weeks, try switching it slightly. That usually means bringing your carbs down a little bit and eating more complex sources like oatmeal, barley or quinoa or more fibrous carbs, like vegetables. Or try increasing your protein and healthy dietary fat while pulling down your carbs some.
- Consider Adding In More HIIT: If you can spare an additional 30 minutes each day, consider doing a 30 minute session of HIIT on the days in-between your main workouts. Or just add in one or two additional days of quick cardio. Something is always better than nothing. This can help give you a little metabolism boost each day, increase your energy and burn a few extra calories.
- Give Yourself a Cheat Meal:It’s difficult to eat clean all of the time, so give yourself one meal a week where you eat one of your favorite foods. Many people like to do it on weekends. So if you want to go out Saturday night and eat some lasagna and a ceasar salad, go ahead. In fact, eating a few more calories that day can actually help keep you losing belly fat, believe it or not. However, be sure it’s just one meal — and not a cheat day!
Hopefully this will help get you on the right track, Elle.
Remember that you won’t see dramatic results overnight — nothing can do that. But within 8-12 weeks, if you follow the advice above and make the time to workout, you’ll probably be much closer to your goals. At the six to eight month mark, you should really see some dramatic changes if you stick with this — which would be just in time for bikini season!
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