“How do I get rid of belly fat?”

A dear friend asked for advice, and this is what I sent her. I get asked this question a lot, and it is a deceptively complicated question to answer, yet the most common one I am asked.

One-liners like “Abs are made in the kitchen” or “You can’t spot reduce belly fat” are unhelpful, and while those one-liners contain bits of truth, they nevertheless do not enable someone to evaluate what to do, or consider what they might need. While any one answer to any one situation will still be individual, how I answered below is how I would answer most people, if given the time. Individuality and specificity in answering this type of question, would need to come after a better “big picture” understanding of how fat loss occurs in the body, and where to look to ask the questions of yourself, and your habits to figure out what to do and where to start.

“M, 

So, belly fat. 

Belly fat, or “fat stored on your belly” is really just body fat. It is important for me to make this distinction, even though it seems rather obvious after the fact, because you canNOT spot reduce fat. You can’t “choose” where fat will be lost. 

Fat loss is a result we get from changing our habits or actions in order to start the processes in the body that lead to fat loss. But, we cannot specify “where” fat will be lost.

So, to lose fat (and belly fat will be a part of that), there are a few things to understand:

  • Body fat is lost by influencing the energy balance of the body. This is where we get “calories in, calories out” from. This is ALWAYS fact, because our body, as a living organism, functions according to the laws of thermodynamics. We can’t just “get rid” of fat, without changing the actions that led to fat storage in the first place (habits) or adding actions to burn more energy and thereby require of the body “to burn fat” (exercise, reducing diet). This requires time and consistency. 
  • To figure out how to do this for yourself, consider the following questions and think about your own answers: 
  • Are you at a healthy weight for your height? Look up your BMI. You want to be in the normal range. If so, than dieting or lowering calories will not often be the best route (sometimes it is, but knowing your body type a bit, this is my opinion for your individual needs). More likely more intense or frequent exercise will be a better route for burning energy. You want to avoid “dieting”, unless you are significantly fat (in the overweight, obese range), in general. Adjustments in sleep, meal consistency and exercise will be far superior than picking and trying to stick to a “diet”. 
  • Are you getting at least 7.5-8 hours of sleep per day (not night, per day in total)? Sleep is fundamentally crucial for ALL bodily processes. Heightened stress, from lack of sleep, or sleep debt will make fat loss hard, if not impossible to maintain. Falling asleep and waking from sleep in conjunction with dark/light cycles each day, as much as possible is HIGHLY recommended. That means, going to bed soon after it gets dark, and rising close to when it is light. There IS room for flexibility here, as it depends a lot on where you live, your genetics, and your preferences, but the general recommendation applies. See if there is room for improvement on a daily basis. Quality of sleep takes preference over quantity. TOTAL quantity of sleep takes preference over timing (you can nap too or break up your sleep amount, that is also highly individual). 
  • Do you exercise intensely (intensity is relative to YOU, not to some arbitrary standard) at least 3 times or more per week? What kind of exercise do you do? Ideally, you want to lift weights or strength train first (of primary importance) and also engage in some form of cardio that works your heart hard/short (high intensity) and also easier/longer (low intensity, which most people can get from sports, walks, or play). Short, high intensity cardio that is safe (something you can do well, without fear of injury) is VERY effective for fat loss. We slow down as we age, naturally, so consistency in exercise is integral to reducing fat gain, but also avoiding future fat gain. 
  • Do you consistently eat 3 meals a day, at similar times that contain protein, carbohydrates and fruits/veggies? It would be helpful, for fat loss, to track your nutrition for one week using MyFitnessPal, and then analyze the balance of your meals. 
  • Do you eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and veggies? 
  • Do you consume a lot of alcohol? Alcohol is not “bad” per se, but regular consumption is not ideal IF the other points above (meals, sleep) are not regular. 

Start there. 

To measure progress: 

  • Scale weight should and DOES go up and down, daily, weekly, monthly. UNLESS you are overweight or obese, measure your progress by how your clothes fit, especially for belly fat. That will be most accurate and practical. 
  • Fat loss, REAL fat loss (not just water manipulations, or natural weight fluctuations) is not linear, it will go up and down, which is why it is important to not strictly go by scale weight. 
  • For your age, strength/weight training is very important, as is as much consistency in WHEN you eat and WHEN you sleep. Your hormones, metabolism and “cells” are against you as you age (time). So, the more regular, and consistent you can make your most basic habits, the better off you will be, and the easier it will be to get real fat loss progress, and maintain it. 

Cheers, 

Joy”

 

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