Excess weight in your midsection can be annoying—not only because it’s so darn tough to ditch, but because it also has an impact on your overall health. Extra belly fat ups your risk of issues such as heart disease and diabetes, and, according to certified strength and condition specialist Michele Olson, PhD, life is filled with sneaky little saboteurs that make putting on the pounds in this area way too easy.
“Due to changes in hormones, daily stresses, lack of sleep, coupled with possibly pregnancies, the fat women gain is often stored increasingly in the belly area,” explains Olson, also a senior clinical professor at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama.
And while you can’t exactly spot reduce, you can make lifestyle changes that can help you lose belly fat. Here, healthy-living pros offer their best science-backed strategies for reducing abdominal fat.
Clean up your diet
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: Abs are made in the kitchen. Unfortunately, if you regularly eat ultra-processed foods (think chips, store-bought baked goods, and candy), you won’t be able to see yours. “These foods are produced using sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, which in high amounts has been shown to promote visceral fat accumulation in the liver, leading to weight gain, inflammation, and related diseases,” explains Rachel Fine, RD, owner of To The Pointe Nutrition.
Instead, opt for eats that have healthy amounts of soluble fiber such as oatmeal, sweet potatoes, avocado, and citrus fruits. Research reveals that an increase in these foods is linked to a decrease in visceral—aka belly—fat.
Slow down on spirits
Reducing alcohol intake can also help, says Fine. Alcohol contains about seven calories per gram—”just under fat, which equates to nine calories per gram.” And because alcohol is absorbed quickly, “when over-consumed, alcohol metabolism impairs metabolism of other macronutrients, such as carbs and fat, promoting…fat storage rather than breakdown,” she says.
While you’re rethinking your drinks, limit your consumption of carbonated beverages as well, advises Vanessa Voltolina, RD, a New York City-based registered dietitian, noting that those fizzy drinks, though yummy, can cause belly bloat. (Sorry LaCroix!)
Instead, stick to water, which Emily Incledon, RD says can act as an appetite suppressant, as well as help flush out your body to decrease the feeling of being bloated.
Make sure you exercise
Great news: Working out is good for more than just adding years to your life, boosting your brain health, and reducing stress levels—it can also help you rein in your gut. In fact, research in the journal Cell Metabolism reveals that exercise specifically helps reduce visceral fat.
The key to losing belly fat with exercise, though, is making sure your sweat session is intense. You’ll want to be working at 85% of your max heart rate at least, says Olson. “The higher your heart rate, the higher the release of epinephrine into the bloodstream and cells,” she explains. “A positive side effect of epinephrine is that it also activates greater release of abdominal fat into the bloodstream to be used for energy.”
So what type of exercise is best when it comes to burning belly fat? Olson recommends intense weight training, Tabata interval training, sprint-style cardio, and kettlebell exercises. Of course, a little ab work won’t hurt either—especially moves (like dead bug) that target the transverse abdominus, the deep core muscles that act like a girdle for the waist, cinching you in all over.
Don’t skimp on sleep
Falling short on zzz’s is also a surefire way to put your waistline in jeopardy. That’s because sleep deprivation knocks your hunger hormones out of whack, leading to an increase in ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, and a decrease in leptin, which signals when you are satiated. What’s more, research has shown that when you aren’t well-rested, you’re also more likely to reach for junk food (hello Ben & Jerry’s!)—and it may even become harder for you to build muscle mass.
To help keep belly fat in check, aim to cuddle with your pillow for at least seven to eight hours each night. And if possible, hit the hay at the same time each night—one study found that women who did so and clocked around eight hours of sleep per night had lower body fat.
Stress, which can come in many forms, can wreak havoc on your health. Whether it’s something you consider to be a “big” deal, like working on a project to meet a crucial work deadline, or something smaller, like someone cutting you off on your morning commute, your body treats it all the same way—by enacting your fight or flight response.
“As your body’s perception of stress increases, cortisol, often called the stress hormone, is released from the adrenal glands,” explains Nana Yaw Adu-Sarkodie, MD, a board-certified family physician practicing home-based care in Baltimore. “Normal levels are released when you wake up in the morning or during exercise. Chronic stress can lead to increased cortisol and other stress hormones, leading to increases in sugar in the bloodstream, weight gain, digestive issues, depression, and a host of other health effects.”
A study in Psychosomatic Medicine confirms the link between stress and weight gain, revealing that women who are most vulnerable to the effects of stress are more likely to have excess abdominal fat and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. One reason could be that women tend to eat more, especially sweets, on days they are stressed, according to a study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Which is why it pays to keep your cool. One way to do so: practicing mindfulness. According to a 2011 Journal of Obesity study, women who experienced the greatest reduction in stress by effectively mastering stress-reduction techniques tended to lose the most deep belly fat. So go ahead and take some deep breaths, hit the mat for some anxiety-relieving yoga, or open up one of those guided-meditation apps. Your belly will thank you in the long run.