Belly fat isn't just that pesky pudge over your waistband -- it can be a serious health risk. While some of your belly fat is that pinchable, under-the-skin kind (which can be annoying, but not a serious health concern) some of it is visceral fat, which surrounds your internal organs, pushes your abdominal wall out to create that lovely "beer belly" appearance, and directly contributes to heart disease.
Unfortunately, there's no instant fix for belly fat -- you'll need to make lifestyle changes to lose it. But good news -- harmful belly fat is the first fat to go when you start losing weight. Losing just 5 to 10% of your body weight makes a major difference in reducing your disease risk, so incorporating just a few tips is enough to help you get healthier.
You might also like: 6 Bedtime Snacks That Help You Burn Fat (And Sleep Well, Too!) and 10 Best Foods to Eat to Lose Weight,
Count ‘Em Up: Reduce Calories to Lose Belly Fat
There's no way around it -- if you want to lose weight, you'll need to cut calories. Lowering your calorie intake creates a gap between how much you eat and how much you burn daily, so your body starts burning fat to make up the difference. And, thankfully, that harmful deep belly fat is the first to go, so you'll start seeing results soon after lowering your calorie intake!
Start shedding belly fat by figuring out your daily calorie burn using an online calculator, then subtracting 500 to 1,000 calories to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week. Make sure your calorie target feels manageable, and don't deprive yourself too much. You can always adjust your calorie intake later if you feel too hungry, or if you're not getting the results you want.
Make a big enough calorie “budget” to meet your basic nutritional needs -- If you go too low, you’ll enter a semi-starvation state that’ll make you miserable and stall your metabolism (no thank you!). Women need at least 1,200 calories daily, while men should get at least 1,800.
Fire Up Your Metabolism with Healthy Foods
While you'll need a well balanced diet to lose belly fat, you should zero in on three key nutrients -- calcium, protein and fiber -- as your fat-burning triple threat. Why's that? Protein and fiber both make your food harder to break down, so you'll burn more calories during digestion than if you eat foods low and protein and fiber. This is one of the only ways to really boost your metabolism, so make the most of it!
While it's not completely clear how calcium prevents belly fat, it's definitely crucial. Women with higher calcium intakes gain less belly fat as they age -- and carry less belly fat in general -- compared to women with low calcium intakes. As a bonus, you'll build healthy bones that'll keep you strong, fit and active for life.
Reach for broccoli, chia seeds, kale and collard greens for fiber, protein and calcium. And fill out the rest of your diet with nuts and seeds -- especially almonds -- nonfat dairy, lentils and beans, fish, chicken and turkey breast and lots of fresh veggies to ensure you're getting the fiber, protein and calcium you need.
Want an instant metabolism boost? Cayenne, ginger, coffee and green tea all give you a slight edge when it comes to losing belly fat.
Ditch the Drive-Thru
It's no secret that fast and processed foods aren't the best options for weight loss. But they're especially bad for belly fat. The trans fat found in processed foods actually tells your body to move the relatively harmless fat stored elsewhere on your body to your belly, where it'll expand your waistline and contribute to heart disease. As a result, trans fat-containing foods are one of the only foods that directly add fat to your belly -- unlike most foods, that just have the potential to trigger weight gain all over.
Avoid processed meats, crackers, store-bought frostings, pre-packaged and fast food baked goods and any food that contains shortening or hydrogenated fats. Not only will you save yourself some calories, you'll cut out the trans fat that could be contributing to your belly bulge.
Still craving chocolate cake? You don't need to avoid baked goods and frosting entirely -- buy from a local bakery that shares that ingredient list, so you can avoid trans fats. Or better yet, make a healthier option at home, using beets or zucchini to add fiber and nutrients to your cake!
HIIT It Hard at the Gym
Getting more active is a great way to burn more calories, so you'll lose more fat overall, and upgrading your workout with intervals will help you shed belly fat. High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, boosts your metabolism for up to 48 hours after your workout -- so if you're doing 2 to 3 HIIT workouts per week on nonconsecutive days, you're increasing your metabolism most of the time. HIIT also seems to burn more fat than regular steady cardio, and the harder your work, the more of that fat comes from your belly.
New to aerobic exercise?
You'll get the best results from less intense sprints and longer rest intervals. Once you've warmed up, work at a slightly higher intensity for 2 minutes, then rest at a lower intensity for 5 to 6 minutes -- until your heart rate goes back to your pre-interval rate, then repeat the interval 2 to 3 times.
Already experienced with cardio?
Try more intense sprints with shorter rest intervals. Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes, then alternate 1-minute sprints with 1-minute rest periods, and repeat each interval 10 to 20 times during your workout.
Pump Iron to Whittle Your Middle
OK, so lifting weights won't magically melt away belly fat -- but it will boost your metabolism by helping you build fat-burning muscle tissue, and it'll help you banish a belly pooch caused by bad posture. Long hours of sitting wreak havoc on the muscles in your legs and hips, which can cause an "anterior pelvic tilt" – a postural imbalance that arches your back and pushes your tummy out, which mimics the look of a spare tire.
The solution? Full-body strength training moves like squats, pushups, deadlifts and rows. These not only tone up your body – including your abs – they'll help fix your alignment and make your tummy appear flatter.
Take Time to De-Stress
Adding lifestyle changes to an already busy lifestyle can feel uber-stressful, so it's important to take some time to relax. Constant stress messes with your hormone levels, and it can actually cause hormonal changes that make you gain belly fat – definitely not ideal!
Instead of racing around 24/7 to finish your to-do list, take 30 minutes to an hour at night to unwind, whether that means taking a luxurious bubble bath (with lavender- or chamomile-scented suds for relaxing aromatherapy), spending a few minutes meditating and reflecting on the day or trying a few relaxing yoga poses (as a bonus, these stretch out tight hip and chest muscles to improve your posture).
Taking time for yourself is the closest you'll come to losing belly fat without having to do any work – who doesn't want that?