How to lose stubborn belly fat, keep it off, and when you can expect to see results

How to lose stubborn belly fat, keep it off, and when you can expect to see results
To lose belly fat, you'll have to reduce overall body weight through diet and exercise.Aja Koska/ Getty Images
  • While you can't lose belly fat instantly, you can reduce it with a calorie deficit and exercise.
  • Avoid refined sugars and carbs, processed foods, and sugary drinks including alcohol.
  • You can expect a healthy amount of weight loss between 1-2 pounds a week through diet and exercise.

There's no real way to lose belly fat instantly, as much as you might want a quick-fix solution. Belly fat is often difficult to lose because it's different from other kinds of fat. The part that you can see and pinch is subcutaneous fat, which lies just under the skin, but it also includes visceral fat that surrounds the internal organs within the abdominal walls.

"Maintaining healthy levels of visceral fat is beneficial to your health," says Maricris Lapaix, a NASM-certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. Excessive visceral fat is a major contributor to cardiovascular diseases and other health conditions, so losing belly fat is important.

Can you lose belly fat in a week?

Diets and trends that claim to reduce belly fat within days are unrealistic and unhealthy. In terms of exercise, ab exercises can help tone your stomach, but you'll still need to lose weight overall to significantly reduce your stomach fat.
Since there's no way to control where your body loses weight, to lose belly fat you have to reduce overall body fat. "The best practices to lose belly fat will be a balance of an active lifestyle, a nutritious diet, and maintaining low stress levels," says Lapaix.

Important: Taking drastic measures to reduce weight can lead to some unhealthy eating behaviors. Before making major changes to your diet or lifestyle, be sure to check in with your primary care doctor or a dietitian for advice and guidance.

Here are the foods and exercises that can help you lose belly fat and when to expect results.

What foods help you lose belly fat?

In order to lose overall body fat, you'll need to be in a caloric deficit, which means you burn more calories than you consume.

"It is important to reduce the consumption of foods high in trans fat, refined carbs, and highly processed foods with added sugars," says Lapaix. However, avoiding food groups to burn belly fat is only a temporary solution caused by a caloric deficit, and the real key to keeping belly fat off in the long run is to create an individualized balanced diet that you can maintain long-term, she says.

Foods to avoid when trying to lose belly fat include:

  • Sugar-sweetened drinks: A high consumption of beverages like carbonated soft drinks, sports drinks, specialty coffee drinks, and sodas are associated with weight gain because of the excessive added sugar content.
  • Alcohol: Heavy drinking, or drinking more than seven times per week, increases the risk of weight gain and obesity. Beer, which is high in calories and carbs, is related to overall weight gain. You may have heard the term "beer belly," though the idea that beer only puts fat on around your waist is largely a myth. However, it does lead to overall weight gain which can result in more belly fat.
  • Refined grain and sugar products: Foods like cornflakes, graham wafers, bagels, and doughnuts have a higher glycemic index than fruits and vegetables, which means they can cause a spike in blood sugar. Diets with these foods are associated with weight gain, so they should be avoided.Foods high in sugar are easy to overeat, which can also lead to weight gain.
  • Fast food: Because of larger portion sizes and poor nutrition, fast food is linked to weight gain and less successful weight-loss maintenance. A 2018 small study analyzing 300 university students showed that the consumption of fast food, such as pizza and fried chicken, is related to obesity, particularly excess belly fat
  • Processed meat: Meat consumption is linked to a higher intake of saturated fat and total calories, which contributes to weight gain. Limit your intake of processed meats like smoked pork, sausages, ham, and bacon.
  • High-calorie bars: Avoid candy bars and energy bars because they are often low in nutrients and high in sugar, fat, and calories. Even granola bars and protein bars can be unhealthy if they're high in sugar and calorie dense, so check the "Nutrition Facts" label to see the amount of fats and sugar in the product.

Foods that aid belly fat loss:

  • High-protein foods: Foods like chicken, turkey, legumes, nuts, whole eggs, fish, and dairy products are great sources of protein, which keeps you full longer. It also helps you lose weight because a high-protein diet takes more energy for your body to digest, which in turn burns body fat.
  • Fiber-rich foods: Eating lots of fiber aids weight management and promotes weight loss, so eat more fiber-rich foods like almonds, oats, prunes, berries, broccoli, brussel sprouts and green beans. Consuming fruits and vegetables that are rich in fiber is also associated with weight loss.
  • Water: Drinking enough water boosts metabolism, which helps you lose weight. Lemon water, a common favorite, may aid weight loss if you use it to replace sugary drinks. However, it has no proven added benefits over regular water.
  • Whole grains: Americans often consume excess amounts of refined grains, such as white bread or white rice. To reduce and control body weight, it's much better to have a diet rich in whole grains, like wheat, brown rice, barley, oats, and rye.
"It is more important to select a sustainable diet and learn what foods work for you long-term versus a 'quick fix.' This is what leads to results and maintaining weight loss results," says Lapaix.

What exercises burn the most belly fat?

You can't control where you gain or lose weight. This is sometimes called "targeting weight loss" (also known as spot reduction) and it isn't realistic, says Lapix. For example, abdominal exercises alone aren't enough to get rid of or reduce belly fat.

"While it is common to hear about workout programs that target specific areas, you cannot pick the areas you'd like to target [for] weight loss," says Lapaix.

For example, resistance training focuses on developing muscles by lifting weights or using stuff like resistance bands. Whereas the main focus of aerobic training is to burn calories via cardio like running or jumping rope.

"A mix of resistance and aerobic training will be beneficial to increasing one's total body strength, and help reduce overall body fat," says Lapaix.

Additionally, having more muscle mass (i.e. the percentage of your body that is made of muscle) will increase how many calories your body naturally burns (this is also known as BMR).

Exercises that engage the whole body and build muscle are the best for reducing belly fat. Having more muscle mass (i.e. the percentage of your body that is made of muscle) will increase how many calories your body naturally burns (this is also known as BMR).

Exercises that burn belly fat:

Results aren't instantaneous, so consistency is key. Additionally, it isn't a good idea to go from not working out at all to doing really intense workouts, says Lapix who recommends gradually adding on intensity to your workouts to avoid injury.

How fast can you realistically lose belly fat?

Reducing overall body fat will cut down on your belly fat. However, this isn't a process that happens overnight or even within days of starting on your weight loss journey. "A healthy amount of weight loss is one to two pounds per week," says Lapaix.

What the research says: A 2019 study showed that losing 6% to 7% of your total body weight can reduce both subcutaneous and visceral fat. This means that if you weighed 180 lbs, it can take you about six to twelve weeks to lose this percentage of your total body weight and reduce belly fat in the process.

However, "there are many factors to consider with body composition, including age, gender, current weight, body fat, and muscle mass, to name a few," says Lapaix. "These will affect the rate at which someone loses weight, which nutritional plan to follow, and an appropriate activity level for them."

Combining exercise and a healthy diet is more effective than either of those factors alone, but other practices might also help in reducing belly fat, such as: According to Lapaix, higher stress levels can also cause body fat retention, so find healthy ways to manage stress, and avoid unhealthy behaviors like smoking and drinking.

Insider's takeaway:

Belly fat shouldn't be only a cosmetic concern -- an excess of visceral fat can increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases and other health conditions.

To reduce belly fat engage in regular physical activity, eat a healthy diet, and manage your stress levels. You'll need to reduce overall body fat to reduce belly fat, which can take several weeks for noticeable results.

Important: Taking drastic measures to lose weight isn't sustainable and will only yield temporary results, says Lapaix. Ineffective diet fixes or suddenly engaging in intense workouts are not sustainable ways to approach weight loss.

"Creating a sustainable lifestyle change with small and gradual changes to nutrition and physical activity will also keep stress levels down. This increases the likelihood of an individual keeping up all parts of their health and wellness journey," says Lapaix.

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