8 Healthy Ways to Lose Belly Fat, According to Science
Plus, the totally normal reasons (read: stress and hormones) why women tend to gain it in the first place.
For so many people during quarantine, the numbers on the scale have fluctuated, and that's okay. It's natural: There have been so many changes we've all been through in the past less than two years, and with constant change, bodies change too. Plus, the American Institute of Stress confirms that there's a correlation between spikes in the stress hormone cortisol (which have been plentiful for a lot of people lately) and weight gain, specifically increases in belly fat.
From a health standpoint, belly fat is a common concern. "Regardless of your weight, we know that belly fat increases your risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and even colorectal cancer," explains Yasmin Akhunji, MD, an internist and thyroid specialist at telehealth practice Paloma Health. Belly fat is also a risk factor for "metabolic syndrome," which includes conditions like high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol, even if you're a young person, she adds (and if you're noticing difficulty in managing weight or metabolism, it's worth having your doctor check your thyroid hormones to make sure the levels are healthy).
Trimming belly fat may be even more difficult for women in some cases. First of all, women typically have a higher percentage of body fat than men to begin with, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And on top of that, it's easy to gain belly fat especially during menopause, when hormone levels drop off and contribute to a slower metabolism. Sometimes losing belly fat could be as small changes as incorporating more whole foods into each meal, or planning your meals ahead of time using a meal prep tool. Then, of course, there are the bigger picture habits, like how much alcohol you drink and how well you're able to handle stress that might factor into your eating.
Read on for more tips on how to lose belly fat, while keeping a healthy mindset.
1. Make sure you're loading up on protein, fiber, and healthy fats.
Probably the top way to lose belly fat is to minimize processed foods, especially refined carbohydrates and sugars where possible. To be clear, that doesn't mean you should never eat those things that you enjoy (cough, pizza), but research published in the Journal of Nutrition found that cutting back on carbs even more so than fat leads to fat loss. With fewer carbs, you'll want to add more protein, whole grains, and healthy fats to your diet.
You'll also want to bulk up on fiber. "It's especially important for weight management, chronic disease risk, and GI regularity," says Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, Head of Nutrition & Wellness at WW. "Fiber, especially prebiotic fiber, can help optimize the biological environment in your GI tract over time by providing fuel for your body's own probiotics to survive and thrive," she adds. Lead with a plant-based diet, including plenty of whole grains (which a newly published study associates with less of an increase in waist circumference compared to eating a diet filled with refined grains like white bread and pasta). For those probiotics, London recommends incorporating lots of fermented foods, like miso, tempeh, kimchi, and artichokes, asparagus, and bananas for prebiotic fiber. You'll be able to stay full with protein-packed healthy fats, including seafood, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas.
2. Cut back on alcohol.
If a number of drinks are in your regular rotation at or after mealtime each day, it might be worth revisiting that. Too much alcohol is associated with belly fat, according to Dr. Akhunji. "This was seen in just adding one additional alcoholic beverage daily," she says.
This isn't to say that you shouldn't have a drink to celebrate an occasion or to never have a glass of wine with dinner. Studies have shown that it's all about quantity when it comes to reducing belly fat, and it's healthiest to keep drinking to a 2-drink maximum whenever you're sipping on wine, cocktails, or any other alcoholic beverage of choice.
3. Eat more frequently.
To keep your metabolism going, London suggests eating consistently, every three to four hours or so (that means no skipping meals, especially breakfast!). Make sure your meals and snacks are regular, she says. And the snacks especially should be high in protein and fiber — time to bust out those nuts and seed — so that you're actually satisfied in between meals.
There's some conflicting research about whether eating smaller, more frequent meals actually contributes to weight loss or not, but London maintains that consistency is key. It'll keep you in a healthy routine and won't encourage you to overeat in the evening if you've skipped lunch, for example.
4. Drink tons of water.
Hydrating yourself adequately is always going to be important for your health. "While there's no direct link between water and weight loss, staying properly hydrated helps you stay alert, energized, and helps everything run smoothly in your body — from temperature to digestion and more," London says.
There's not one general "hydration goal" for everyone, because each person's body and weight is different. For most people, London suggests drinking between nine and twelve eight-ounce cups of mostly water (but coffee and tea are included in that) per day. If you're working out, add two to three cups of water. Eating more water-filled fruits and veggies will also help you stay more hydrated, too.
5. Plan your meals.
Meal prep is for more than just keeping you organized. It keeps you on task with eating meals that will nourish you and provide you with the macronutrients you need. If you're not someone who wants to eat the same thing every day or forgo spontaneity with eating, that's fine. "Identify a few meals that you know you can cook even when you're tired, stressed, or totally over it," London says. And stock your pantry and fridge with the ingredients for those dishes to give you a plan to stick to.
Don't feel the need to be so regimented with your meals and snacks, even if you're looking to lose weight. Translation: You really don't have to skip dessert! Try to sidestep hidden sources of sugar, like in pre-made smoothies or other sugary beverages, and even some pasta sauces and dressings. That leaves more room to enjoy a true dessert, London says.
6. Practice mindful eating.
While you're in the meal prepping mindset, take that same thoughtful approach when you're actually eating. It can reduce stress and stress-eating, says Dr. Akhunji. Though the goal of mindful eating is not weight loss or trimming fat, a 2017 study found that it is a healthier way of enjoying your meals, and may possibly be tied to maintenance of a healthy weight. That's mostly because you're slowing down, listening to your hunger cues, and making eating choices more deliberately when you're practicing mindful eating.
"Take a few deep breaths before your first bite of every snack or meal, eating slowly and without distraction, and tune into how your body feels when you eat," Dr. Akhunji says. Making a habit out of this practice may not have proven belly fat loss benefits, but it's definitely a positive for your digestion and mental state.
7. Work on a regular exercise and sleep routine.
It's not all about dietary choices. As expected, working out is a major factor in losing belly fat. But just doing ab exercises is not the only way to target belly fat. Like eating, keeping exercise consistent is best, so find your niche in the fitness world, even if you're not doing the exact same routine every time — but do it every day. "A mix of cardiovascular and strength training is critical to include as part of your repertoire — both for the benefits of physical activity, but also to help regulate your ability to fall and stay asleep," says London.
Sleep is also more important than you'd think for weight management and lowering heart disease risk, adds London. "Changes in your sleep patterns can also be related to hormonal shifts, so gradually increasing your activity level through a mix of strength training and cardio can help you both build lean body mass, which will help to burn more energy at rest, and contribute to improving your sleep quality," she says. That way, you can get your much-needed seven to nine hours a night.
8. Manage stress that causes stress eating and other health issues.
It's hardly a secret that stress eating is a thing, but keeping your stress levels low is a top priority for healthy weight management. As noted previously, stress hormones like cortisol may contribute to belly fat. "When the hormone cortisol is chronically elevated, one might note sleep disturbance, weight gain, muscle weakness, brain fog, mood swings, anxiety, and fatigue," explains Dr. Akhunji.
The good news is that all of the above can help you balance your cortisol levels and keep your thyroid hormones regular, too, says Dr. Akhunji. Eating a balanced diet, exercising and sleeping regularly, and committing to self-care practices (Meditation! Journaling! Daily walks!) are all pieces of the puzzle.