How to lose belly fat

Having excess belly fat can not only be unwanted, but it is often the hardest fat for us to lose. Having a small amount isn’t a problem, but too much can represent a serious health risk. Indeed, having lots of fat in your abdominal area can be quite dangerous, as it is linked to a number of chronic conditions.

There are two types of belly fat: visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. Subcutaneous fat, is the one you can see and it is soft to touch. The other type of fat - visceral fat - is the kind that surrounds your organs, and having too much of it increases your risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even cancer.

So, how do you shift that stubborn spare tyre? Well, to lose belly fat you need to lose weight in general; unfortunately you can’t just target belly fat on its own. There are many different ways to burn excess fat, but the most important factor is ensuring you burn more calories than you consume, by eating healthily and exercising.

In this article, we explain when you should worry about belly fat, and share some tips for reducing this hard to shift excess weight.

How much is too much?

We all have fat in our bodies. It is necessary for us to function normally, and research conducted by Diabetes Care indicates that subcutaneous fat can even have a protective role. High levels of subcutaneous fat, however, is often correlated with having lots of visceral fat. Meaning that if you have lots of fat you can see, chances are you also have lots that you can’t - and that can be very harmful.

The amount of fat you have is usually affected by your lifestyle factors, but genetics and medical reasons can contribute too.

You are more likely to have excess fat if:

  • You spend a lot of time sitting
  • You don’t get enough exercise
  • You don’t have much muscle mass
  • You eat more calories than you burn

So far so obvious, but how can you tell when that extra weight around your middle has become a risk to your health?

A good place to start is by measuring your waistline. NHS choices suggest measuring your waist by finding the bottom of your ribs and the top of your hip and wrapping a tape measure around your waist in between these two points. A measurement greater than 34 inches in women, and larger than 40 inches in men, likely puts you at a very high risk of developing a chronic disease.

Woman measuring her waist and holding a salad

Another measurement you can take is your Body Mass Index (BMI). You can use the NHS BMI calculator as an indicator of whether you are underweight, at a healthy weight, overweight, or obese. There are limitations to this figure, as the adult BMI does not take into account your age, gender, ethnicity, or muscle mass; all of which can affect your result. It also doesn’t take into account where your fat is distributed, so it’s possible to have a ‘healthy’ BMI but still have excess fat around your waist, increasing your risk of certain conditions.

There is a significant difference between having too much visceral fat and having some extra belly fat. If you have a waist circumference that is less than 31.5 inches if you are female, or less than 37 inches if you are male then you probably don’t need to worry about overall body fat. As a rough guide, in the UK if you’re a woman and wear a size 14 or less and a size 10 or less in the US, then you are unlikely to have a dangerous amount of fat.

Diet

There is a correlation between increased portion sizes and increased weight. Portion sizes have been rising since the 1970s, particularly in developed countries like the US, and weight has increased accordingly. Weight gain is caused when you are consuming more calories than you burn and larger portions of food contain more calories. By reducing your portion size you should be able to reduce your caloric intake and start to get rid of stubborn belly fat.

In order to lose weight you need to eat a healthy and balanced diet, with a small caloric deficit. You can do this by following the Eatwell Guide, which outlines the different quantities of food you should eat from the various food groups. This can help you to achieve a healthy and balanced diet.

To eat a healthy and balanced diet you should:

  • Eat at least five portions of different fruits and vegetables a day
  • Base meals on starchy carbohydrates such as rice, potato, and pasta
  • Include some dairy or dairy alternatives that are low-fat and low-sugar when possible
  • Try to eat beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein regularly
  • Aim for at least two portions of oily fish, such as salmon, per week
  • Use unsaturated oils and spreads, and only in small amounts
  • Limit your intake of foods which are high in fat, salt, and sugar
  • Drink 6-8 glasses of water per day

Colourful bowl of fruit with berries, mango, and almonds

To create a small caloric deficit The British Nutrition Foundation suggest you:

  • Boil or steam food instead of frying
  • Choose lean cuts of meat such as chicken breast or pork loin
  • Eat more beans and pulses. They are good alternatives to meat as they’re low in fat and high in fibre, but still a good source of protein
  • Read the nutrition information on food labels and focus on the amount of fat, saturates, sugars and salt they contain
  • Reduce your alcohol intake; one beer has as many calories as a packet of crisps / chips, and alcohol is a stimulant so it can increase your appetite in the short term

How much you eat, and what you eat, play a key role in losing weight - which is the only way to get rid of stubborn belly fat. So following the guidelines set out by the Eatwell Guide will help you to eat a healthier and more balanced diet, and should enable you to lose weight.

Whilst it is important to reduce the amount of food you eat in order to lose weight, you should not restrict your calories too much. Diets that are extremely low in calories can have long term negative effects on your health. You should also avoid ‘crash dieting’ and fads, as these can be very bad for you.

Read more about different types of diets on our Health A-Z.

Exercise

A sedentary lifestyle can cause you to gain belly fat because you are not burning enough calories. If you have a job that involves sitting all day, and if you don’t exercise, you are more likely to have excess lower belly fat as a result.

So to lose belly fat you need to incorporate some form of exercise into your life. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends people carry out at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week to improve their health, and 200-300 minutes in order to sustain long term weight loss.

Three women exercising with purple resistance bands

There is a lot of choice when it comes to exercise, and there is often conflicting research supporting claims about what type of exercise is the best to lose belly fat. Try to pick an exercise that you enjoy and will do on a regular basis. You can also incorporate exercise into your daily routine by walking or cycling instead of driving - or try out a new activity, such as dancing or climbing.

Sleep

There is also growing evidence that suggests sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain. If you are not getting enough sleep you are more likely to be overweight and carry fat in your lower belly. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that women who get less than five hours of sleep a night were more likely to gain weight than those that got 7 hours of sleep or more.

Alarm clock on bed

To get 7-8 hours of sleep each night avoid having caffeine and alcohol before bed. Caffeine is a stimulant and can make it difficult for you to fall asleep, and alcohol can cause you to wake up throughout the night. Also make sure that your bedroom is a relaxing environment, it needs to be dark and quiet for you to have a good night's sleep. Try using an eye mask and ear plugs to block out light and noise. To relax when you are trying to fall asleep, try listening to white noise or some other soft and steady sound.

Read more tips about how to get to sleep in our Health A-Z.

Stress

Stress may also be a key component in having too much belly fat. A study conducted at Yale University found that women who are not overweight, but are vulnerable to the effects of stress are more likely to have excess abdominal fat. This suggests that stress can cause you to carry excess belly fat. So to lose belly fat it may be helpful to reduce your stress levels. You can do this by following some simple relaxation techniques.

Practise mindfulness. Do this by paying attention to the present moment to help bring awareness to your thoughts and feelings. You can incorporate mindfulness into your daily life by taking a moment to observe your surroundings, and to notice your feelings. You can also try meditation or yoga to help you focus on your thoughts and breathing. Apps like Headspace and Calm can be useful in encouraging you to set aside a time each day to be mindful.

Man meditating and looking out at horizon

You can also reduce stress with calming breathing exercises. Sit, stand, or lie down somewhere comfortable and then breath in through your nose and out through your mouth gently and regularly, for three to five minutes.

Read more tips to reduce stress in our Health A-Z.

Conclusion

If you find that your waist circumference measurement indicates you are at a greater risk of a chronic condition, then you should consider losing weight. Whilst it is difficult to target belly fat specifically, you can focus on burning more calories than you consume so that you start to lose overall body fat. You can do this by making sure you are eating a balanced diet, and by reducing your portion sizes. Try to incorporate exercise into your daily routine to help burn fat and reduce stress. Also try to reduce your stress levels and improve your sleep by practising mindfulness and by creating a dark and quiet space to fall asleep.