Visceral fat, also known as abdominal or ‘belly’ fat, is fat that develops around your mid-section, surrounding vital organs like your liver and pancreas. It’s different to subcutaneous fat, which you can pinch with your hands.
In healthy amounts, subcutaneous fat has several important functions – it insulates and regulates the temperature of your body, for example. Belly fat, by contrast, promotes long-lasting inflammation, which can increase your risk of chronic diseases.
How to lose belly fat: 22 effective tips
Fat cells don’t simply store energy, they also produce hormones and secrete inflammatory substances into the body. For this reason, having high levels of any type of body fat is bad for your health – but this type of belly fat is the most villainous.
"Whether you’re overweight or not, carrying more visceral fat around your stomach can increase your risk of health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart and circulatory problems, type 2 diabetes and sleep apnoea," Dr Wild explains.
Since this kind of belly fat wraps around your internal organs, it’s hard to tell how much you carry. "We’re all at risk of developing visceral fat, so it’s really important we manage our lifestyle by making small, sustainable changes to help keep us healthy," says Wild.
1. Prioritise protein
If you aren’t already eating a source of lean protein such as salmon, eggs, or lentils at every mealtime, now’s the time to start. Not only is it incredibly satiating – eating protein stimulates the hormone PYY, which reduces appetite and promotes fullness – but it also protects your body composition as you lose weight.
When you’re in a calorie deficit, you risk losing muscle as well as fat. Eating adequate amounts of protein staves off hunger while preserving muscle mass, a University of Illinois study found. Recommended intake varies from person to person – the reference intake in the UK is set at 0.83 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, Lenherr explains.
2. Stay hydrated
Keeping well hydrated is important for many reasons – but did you know that drinking a pint of water three times a day before mealtimes could also help your weight loss efforts? In a 12-week University of Birmingham study, obese adults who drank 500ml of water half an hour before eating their main meals lost 3.5kg more than a control group who did so once or not at all. "Aim to drink around six to eight glasses of water each day," says Wild.
3. Eat plenty of soluble fibre
When you eat soluble fibre, it forms a gel-like consistency that slows digestion, promoting fullness and decreasing the number of calories your body absorbs from food. It’s also linked to lower levels of belly fat. For every 10g increase in soluble fibre eaten per day – the equivalent of eating two small apples, 130g green peas and 85g pinto beans – belly fat was reduced by 3.7 per cent over five years, an observational study by researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre found.
"The recommended daily intake of fibre is 30g, while the average UK individual consumes just 18g, according to the British Dietetic Association," says Lenherr. "Fibre plays a huge role in digestion, cardiovascular health, balanced blood sugar, weight management, hormone health and more. To increase your fibre intake, include whole grains, nuts and seeds, pulses and fruits and vegetables into your daily diet."
4. Stress less
Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands. It affects fat distribution by causing fat to be stored centrally – as belly fat – rather than peripherally, at the hips. The more cortisol you release, the greater your levels of this type of fat, a Yale study found. "Think about your lifestyle – where you can, try to reduce your stress levels," says Wild. "Your mental wellbeing is just as important as your physical health, so take some time to focus on yourself. Make sure you spend time relaxing, too."
5. Opt for unsaturated fats
The type of fat you eat determines where it will be stored in your body. In a seven-week study by Uppsala University, participants gained weight by consuming excess calories from either muffins made of saturated fat (palm oil) or polyunsaturated fat (sunflower oil). Those who ate the saturated fat muffins gained more body fat, more belly fat, and three times less muscle than the group who ate muffins made with polyunsaturated fat. Additionally, monounsaturated fatty acids – found abundantly in olive oil, as well as peanuts and avocados – have been shown to have beneficial effects on belly fat.
6. Ditch soft drinks...
Soft drinks appear to be even worse for belly fat than consuming high sugar foods, since your brain is less efficient at registering liquid calories (this is true of fruit juice, too). Studies have consistently shown a correlation between sweetened beverage consumption and an increase in belly fat. In a six-year observational study by the American Heart Association, among those who drank one soft drink daily, belly fat volume increased by 852 centimetres cubed.
7. ...Even diet versions
They may be free from sugar, but diet drinks – packed with artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose – also play havoc with your waistline. Another observational study, this time by the University of Illinois, found that drinkers of diet soda compensate for the absence of calories by eating greater quantities of ‘discretionary foods’ such as cookies, ice cream, chocolate, fries and pastries.
9. Practice mindfulness
People who pay a high degree of attention to their present thoughts and feelings – known as "dispositional mindfulness" – are less likely to be obese and have less abdominal fat than people who do not exhibit as much awareness, a study from Brown University found. Dispositional mindfulness is more like an "inherent personality trait", the researchers said, rather than mindfulness meditation, which is a focused and deliberate awareness of the present moment. However, it can be learned by regularly practicing meditation.
10. Make time for exercise
While physical inactivity leads to a significant increase in belly fat, a randomised clinical trial by Duke University Medical Centre found, high amounts of exercise can lead to significant decreases relatively quickly. Participants who did not exercise had an 8.6 per cent increase in belly fat after eight months, while those who exercised the most saw a 8.1 per cent decrease in belly fat in the same period.
11. Try interval training
Interval training may shed more pounds than a continuous moderate intensity workout, according to analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, with sprint interval training the most effective for fat loss. "HIIT – high intensity interval training – is a great option for those with a busy lifestyle, as you’ll increase your heart rate and burn fat in a short amount of time," says Wild. "Your body will reap the benefits of a HIIT workout for hours after your workout, too."
And if high intensity workouts aren’t for you? No sweat. Even moderate amounts of exercise can reduce the amount of inflammation in belly fat, according to a rodent study by the University of Illinois, helping to safeguard your health. Belly fat produces inflammatory molecules that enter the bloodstream and increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
12. Opt for whole grains
Ditch refined grains such as white bread, white rice, and white pasta for their healthier whole counterparts. People who consume three or more daily servings of whole grains – for example, whole wheat bread, brown rice and oats – while limiting their daily intake of refined grains to less than one serving per day, have around 10 per cent less belly fat than those who choose refined grains every time, research from Tufts University found.
Not all calories are created equal, says Lenherr. "The calories in an avocado might be the same as a portion of fries, but the impact and nutritional intake of these two foods are definitely not the same," she says. "Calorie counting is a popular way of losing weight, which may work for some individuals, but there is a significant difference between a low-calorie diet of plant foods versus a diet filled with refined carbohydrates and sugars."
13. Avoid snacking
We know this deep down, but now science has confirmed it: snacking on high-fat and high-sugar foods is independently associated with an increase in abdominal fat. According to a study published in Hepatology, eating high-calorie snacks in addition to three main meals a day increases the accumulation of abdominal fat and fat in the liver, whereas eating larger balanced meals at mealtimes does not.
14. Take omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of fats that are essential for human health. They’re found in high amounts in fatty fish like salmon and herring, and also in algae supplements. There’s scientific evidence that getting adequate omega-3s – either through your diet or as a supplement – helps to reduce your appetite, increase your metabolism, and amplify the number of calories and amount of fat you burn during exercise. Multiple studies of patients with fatty liver disease have shown that fish oil supplements can significantly reduce abdominal fat.
15. Drink coffee
Good news for your morning cup of joe. Women who drink two or three cups of coffee a day have lower total body and abdominal fat than those who drink less, a study by Anglia Ruskin University found, with drinkers between the ages of 20 and 24 having 3.4 per cent less belly fat than those who did not consume coffee. ‘Our research suggests that there may be bioactive compounds in coffee other than caffeine that regulate weight and which could potentially be used as anti-obesity compounds,’ wrote lead researcher Dr Lee Smith.
16. Target aerobic training
There are so many reasons to mix up your workouts with a range of activities – not least because it makes exercise more interesting. But when it comes to burning belly fat, cardio is king. Researchers from Duke University Medical Center compared aerobic exercise, resistance training, and a combination of the two, to find out which was best for fighting belly fat.
Aerobic exercise – performed as the sole exercise method or alongside resistance training – was found to be more efficient and effective than resistance training alone, significantly reducing belly fat, liver fat, liver enzyme levels and fasting triglyceride levels, and improving insulin resistance. Plus, it was found to burn 67 per cent more calories than hitting the weights.
17. Don’t ‘diet’
While you have most likely heard or gluten-free or dairy-free, many popular diets are also calling for people to be nightshade-free, sugar-free, lectin-free or grain-free, says Lenherr. "There are a number of problems with eliminating whole food groups unnecessarily, especially without the support of a nutritionist," she says – from risking nutritional deficiencies to missing out on essential protein and fibre.
"On top of this, a reductionist way of eating can leave people feeling unmotivated and bored, which increases the likelihood of unhealthy cravings and giving up on the diet altogether," Lenherr continues. "For those still wanting to cut out whole food groups, make sure you speak with a nutritionist to ensure you avoid any unwanted health implications."
18. Get enough sleep
A lack of shut-eye has long been associated with a wider waistline. A poor night’s sleep has an effect on your hunger hormones – causing levels of appetite stimulant ghrelin to rise, and appetite suppressant leptin to fall – which can make you feel especially ravenous. And unfortunately, many sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, are worsened by weight gain.
A meta-analysis by the University of Warwick Medical School found that short sleep duration increased the likelihood of obesity by 55 per cent in adults. And there have been controlled studies, too – when 16 adults were allowed just five hours of sleep per night for five nights, they each gained an average of 0.82kg.
19. Try intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern that alternates between set periods of eating and fasting – typically eating all your food in an eight hour window, and abstaining from eating for 16. In a review of studies on intermittent fasting by the University of Illinois, people experienced up to a 7 per cent decrease in abdominal fat within 24 weeks. This approach to eating doesn’t suit everyone, and for people with certain health issues such as diabetes, it may even be dangerous. Seek advice from a healthcare professional before attempting this approach.
20. Take probiotics
Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide a wealth of health benefits when eaten. Certain probiotics, such as those from the Lactobacillus family, inhibit the absorption of fat from your diet. They also stimulate the release of a hormone called GLP-1, which helps to burn calories and fat. A strain called Lactobacillus gasseri has been found to have impressive anti-obesity effects. In a Japanese study spanning 210 participants, taking this supplement for 12 weeks reduced belly fat by 8.5 per cent on average.
21. Don’t drink alcohol
There’s a reason it’s called a ‘beer belly’. As well as being high in calories, alcohol decreases leptin levels – the hunger suppressant – making you want to eat more. It also interferes with your body’s ability to process carbohydrates and fats from food, and several studies have shown that drinking too much alcohol may encourage fat to be stored as belly fat, so limiting your intake is advised. Unfortunately, a study by the University of Verona found that even moderate alcohol intake is linked to carrying more belly fat.
22. Find what works for you
There’s no quick fix to lose your belly fat, so make sure you find a healthy lifestyle that works for you, says Wild. ‘Vary your exercise routines and find a few exercises that you enjoy. Swapping for healthier food habits doesn’t need to be boring, there’s lots of tasty alternatives to your favourite meals,’ she says. ‘It’s important to make healthy habits that you enjoy to help keep you motivated to achieve your health goals. Set yourself small, achievable goals each week and write them down – it will help you to stick to them.’
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