Updated: Apr 9
Before you're informed on how to lose belly fat, I’d like to say this:
There’s nothing wrong with belly fat.
In fact, in many cultures, it’s desirable to have some extra squish.
Certainly, at various points in history, luscious roundness was the look. (Google “Renoir’s bathers”, “Rubens’ nudes” or, "Ethiopian Bodi tribe.")
And yet, in modern popular culture—despite some progress celebrating more diverse body shapes — we still overwhelmingly glorify the six-pack and the hourglass waist. Not that there’s anything wrong with those shapes either.
Either way, many of my clients come to me wanting to lose belly fat.
This is why this topic is being covered.
Fair warning: This story will be different from what you usually find on the web or in a magazine. That’s because it's going to give you practical, realistic, big-picture answers. And those answers might not be what you expect.
Why belly fat even matters
You might’ve noticed: Regardless of body fat, people are shaped differently.
And it turns out, where we store fat matters.
Visceral fat vs. subcutaneous fat
If you were to get a cross-section on someone (gross), you would find fat in two places.
▶ The padding just under the surface of the skin: This type of fat, called either subcutaneous fat or peripheral fat and is relatively benign.
▶ Deep in the abdomen, often surrounding vital organs like the liver, stomach, and intestines: Called visceral or central fat, this contributes to chronic inflammation, the formation of arterial plaque, and blood clots. It’s also associated with an increased risk for metabolic disorders, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Generally, if someone has more subcutaneous fat, they’ll also have more visceral fat—but not always. Occasionally, a person can appear quite lean, with little subcutaneous fat, but still, have higher levels of visceral fat.
Okay, but why do I have belly fat?
Well, as you’ve probably heard, where we store fat relates to hormones, genetics, and certain medical conditions.
Things that can increase visceral fat include:
A higher body fat percentage: Although genetics and hormones will determine how fat is distributed, people with more body fat are more likely to have higher amounts of belly fat.
Being a man: Compared to premenopausal women, men are more likely to carry extra fat around their midsection. That’s because their visceral fat stores seem to absorb a greater proportion of dietary fat.
Being postmenopausal: Mostly due to hormonal shifts, women tend to experience a shift in body fat distribution post-menopause, with a decrease in leg fat, and an increase in abdominal fat.
Aging: As fat cells age, they secrete more inflammatory factors and also get redistributed from subcutaneous stores to visceral depots.
Having chronically high levels of cortisol: Visceral fat soaks up and breaks down excess cortisol.
Having certain gene variants: Several genes have been linked to body fat distribution. (If you’re into that kind of stuff, the genes are: TBX15, HOXC13, RSPO3, CPEB4, and LRP5.) While all people carry these genes, certain versions of these genes predispose a person to carry fat around their midsection, compared to their hips and legs.
We can’t do anything about our age, sex, or genes. But we do have control over a few other things.
And we’re about to get into just that.
“Belly fat” after pregnancy: It might not be what you think it is!
Immediately postpartum, women will lose about 6 kilograms (bye baby, placenta, and other tissues and fluids).
After that, more weight loss may slowly occur as the uterus returns to its regular shape, and fluid levels normalise.
Many women find, however, that their bodies, especially their bellies, look different—even if they return to their pre-pregnancy weight.
This is likely because their abdominal tissue stretched to accommodate their fetus. Now it’s fluffier and doesn’t compress tissues and fat as well as it used to.
Lingering diastasis recti, a separation of the abdominal muscle, can also make the abdomen look more rounded.
(If diastasis is giving you problems, see a pelvic physiotherapist. They can assess the degree of diastasis, give you safe ways to move your body, potentially repair some of the abdominal separation, and improve symptoms.)
Though strengthening key core muscles (such as the transverse abdominis) can help both issues, it takes time.
With so many other changes going on in your life (remember sleep?), this news can be tough to swallow.
At the same time: Your body just did a really amazing thing.
So while there’s nothing wrong with wanting to work on your body after pregnancy, make sure you approach that work with love, compassion, and a heck of a big high five.
How to lose belly fat, in 6 steps
If there’s a trick to incredible results, it’s this: the ability to practice basic (sometimes boring) health behaviours over and over again.
Wait! Don't go! Read me through.
What I'm about to share will probably trigger your inner “I know this already” voice. You might roll your eyes and think there’s nothing new here. Nothing “cutting edge” or “sparkly.”
But, if you use these steps, you’ll see results. Results you can actually sustain. And hey, that would be pretty thrilling.
1. Know why you want to change your belly.
This will help you set clear goals and stay motivated.
Maybe you’re thinking, “This is easy. I’m here because I want to lose belly fat! Step 1 is now complete!”. Let’s get specific:
Has your doctor told you to lose weight for health reasons?
Are you pretty healthy, but feel like your pants are getting tighter, and you just wanna know what’s up?
Are you looking to get totally shredded, with visible abs?
Whatever your reasons, you’re welcome here.
However, if you’ve decided to slim down for your health, let’s dig a little deeper because, beyond a certain point, getting a leaner midsection isn’t healthier.
Yes, larger midsections, over 94 cm for men, and over 80 cm for women—are correlated with:
And yet, plenty of people fall well under these waistline parameters and feel pretty fit and healthy too, but they’re unhappy with their bellies.
By the way, plenty of people fall above these parameters and are also healthy, and happy with their shape.
While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to change your body for aesthetic reasons, it’s worth considering sometimes when we go through tough stressful stuff such as a divorce, dealing with a sick parent, or a job loss, we look for other ways to feel better and more fulfilled. Like, “getting ripped.”
And getting a flat (or flatter) stomach won’t fix those problems.
In fact, sometimes getting hyper-lean creates new problems and stress.
Because of that, many of my clients have found value in learning to accept their softer sides, rather than fight them.
Some did that through learning to view their bodies through the eyes of a loved one—such as a toddler who cuddles up to your belly because it’s so squishy and comfy. Or, they’ve learned to appreciate their bodies for what they can do.
So, know your reasons for wanting to change. And whether that change is worth the effort.
2. Accept that there’s no trick to spot-reducing belly fat.
We all want the easy way out of stubborn problems.
Especially when life (laundry, sick relatives, rebellious teenagers, injuries, and what’s that smell in the heating duct) feels challenging enough.
Plus, there’s no shortage of books, magazines or social media posts with titles like The Belly Shrinking Diet or “4 Exercises to Give You Abs in 4 Weeks” to make us think that spot-reducing is not only possible but easy.
But just like you can’t lose fat only off your left tricep, you also can’t lose it just from your belly.
Belly fat loss goes along with overall body fat loss, which usually goes along with changes to what you're eating or not eating and the exercises that you're doing or not doing.
Why am I telling you this? Because the sooner you give up on what doesn’t work, the sooner you can move on to what does.
I want you to know that I'm excluding surgical and pharmaceutical treatments from my strategies to lose belly fat. To date, these are the only reliable methods to “spot-reduce” fat from the abdomen. Liposuction and body contouring can surgically remove fat from the belly, and hormone replacement therapy can change how fat is distributed in the body.
Can you lose belly fat fast?
How quickly you can lose belly fat depends on how quickly you can lose fat all over your body.
To lose an inch of fat around the waist, it takes about 2 kilograms of overall weight loss
With consistent effort, my clients generally have lost between 0.5kg to 1 kilogram per week.
This means, that within a month or so of reasonably consistent healthy habit changes, people can lose an inch off their waists at a minimum.
3. Consume a diet centred around minimally-processed foods.
While there aren’t any foods that will magically shrink your belly (celery juice, get outta here), highly-processed, highly-palatable foods can easily derail efforts to get leaner.
They’re just really easy to overeat.
Meanwhile, minimally-processed foods—like lean proteins, colourful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds—are more satisfying.
Specifically, it has been found, that most people have an easier time losing fat when they consume:
1-2 palms of appetite-regulating protein-rich foods (chicken, yogurt, tofu, or eggs) per meal
1-2 fists of colourful veggies per meal, which helps fill you up on fewer calories
Fibre-rich whole grains, fruit, legumes, nuts, and seeds in place of refined foods most of the time
Specific amounts vary from one person to another. Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘That’s not that helpful.’
You’re right, but there's a solution for that: my free nutrition calculator. Click here and answer the questions, and I will personally send you the report outlining the calories, protein, carbs, and fat you need to achieve your goals (along with other nutrition guidelines that shows you what to do).
Trans fats and belly fat
Trans fats, an ingredient often found in processed foods, may actually cause an increase in belly fat
In one study, rats were fed either a high saturated fat diet or a high trans-fat diet. After eight weeks, rats on the high trans fat had significantly more visceral fat, compared to the rats on the high saturated fats diet.
Trans fats are often listed as “partially hydrogenated oil” on ingredient labels and are found in many shelf-stable baked goods, crackers, and cookies. So try to reduce or eliminate those foods.
4. Eat slowly, until satisfied.
You might assume people need a strict food tracking method to start losing fat, but we just haven’t found that to be the case.
This is especially true when they learn to listen and respond to their internal sense of hunger and fullness, a skill known as internal appetite regulation.
By relaxing, eating slowly, and tuning into their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, most people can make phenomenal progress.
This can be a ninja skill when it comes to weight management.
5. Find movements that you like.
You can’t burn away belly fat with abdominal exercises or vibrating waist belts.
And while you might have read that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to boost visceral fat loss, there’s an important caveat:
In other words, one exercise-until-you-hurl session isn’t gonna flatten your belly. Neither will two. Or three. Or seven. Or fifteen.
It takes session after session after session, week after week, month after month, to see and maintain results.
So if you love HIIT workouts more than ice cream, great. Keep it up.
On the other hand, if the idea of sprints and burpees makes you want to hide in your closet, know that you’ve got options, lots and lots and lots of options.
Ideally, to lose belly fat, you’d combine some form of resistance training with some form of cardio.
But you ultimately want to exercise in a way that’s doable, pain-free, and enjoyable, because that’s the exercise you’ll do regularly and consistently.
Can supplements reduce belly fat?
Periodically, a new supplement promises remarkable results.
But do any of them actually work?
Below is a list of what the research has to say about the effectiveness of five supplements often promoted for fat loss:
If you just read this list and felt the big let-down, I don’t blame you.
Through clever marketing campaigns and dramatic anecdotal success stories, we’re constantly being sold on the miracle pill. Sadly, it just doesn’t exist.
The good news:
Now that you know this, you can stop wasting your money, and empower yourself to practice the daily nutrition, movement, and lifestyle habits that do work.
6. Approach all of the above with self-compassion, instead of criticism.
Self-compassion is an attitude of generosity, honesty, and kindness towards yourself. It helps you see yourself clearly, and then take steps to help yourself.