When it comes to shedding stubborn belly fat, exercise alone is not the answer. The master key really lies with what you eat, and perhaps more importantly when you eat, followed closely by the type of exercise you engage in.lean
Other healthy lifestyle habits such as sleep and stress reduction are also helpful, as they help keep your cortisol levels low. Cortisol is a stress hormone that, when elevated, depletes lean muscle and holds on to fat in the abdominal region.1
It’s important to realize that the benefits of reducing belly fat go far beyond aesthetics. Abdominal fat—the visceral fat that deposits around your internal organs—releases proteins and hormones that can cause inflammation, which in turn can damage arteries and enter your liver, affecting how your body breaks down sugars and fats.
The chronic inflammation associated with visceral fat accumulation can trigger a wide range of systemic diseases linked with metabolic syndrome.
This is why carrying extra weight around your middle is linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and other chronic diseases, and why measuring your waist-to-hip ratio is actually a better indicator of your health status than body mass index (BMI).
Three Dietary Keys for Shedding Abdominal Fat
To shed abdominal fat, you need to reduce your overall body fat. It’s simply impossible to target just one area for fat reduction. Diet is key here, as poor diet promotes fat accumulation and causes your body to hold on to excess fat.
In terms of your food choices, the following two are foundational for successful weight loss:
1. Reduce or eliminate added sugar from your diet. This includes all forms of sugar and fructose, whether refined or “all-natural” such as agave or honey, as well as all grains (including organic ones), as they quickly break down to sugar in your body.That said, processed fructose (such as high fructose corn syrup) is by far the worst of the bunch in terms of causing metabolic dysfunction. Because your body metabolizes it in the same way it metabolizes alcohol, it promotes insulin resistance and fat accumulation to a greater degree than other sugars.
Processed fructose is a staple ingredient in most processed foods and sweetened beverages, where it can hide under 60 different names,2 so the easiest way to avoid it is to swap out processed foods for whole, ideally organic, produce.
As a general rule, if you’re insulin resistant (and you likely are if you’re struggling with abdominal fat) keep your total sugar/fructose intake below 15 grams per day. If your weight is normal and you have no other signs of insulin resistance, the recommended daily amount is 25 grams a day
2. Increase healthy fats in your diet. Following a low-fat diet is a sure-fire way to sabotage your weight loss goals. To shed fat, you actually need to eat healthy saturated fats, and plenty of them.Most who are insulin resistant will benefit from 50-85 percent of their daily calories in the form of healthy fat until their insulin resistance resolves.
This includes avocados, butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk, raw dairy, organic pastured egg yolks, coconuts and coconut oil, unheated organic nut oils, raw nuts, and grass-fed meats, as well as animal-based omega-3s.
As noted in the featured article,3 monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) found in nuts, olive oil, and avocados have been shown to boost abdominal fat loss:
“When researchers in one study asked women to switch to a 1,600-calorie, high-MUFA diet, they lost a third of their belly fat in a month.”
For more healthy diet details, I suggest you review my Optimized Nutrition Plan, which is a comprehensive and step-by-step guide to help you make health-promoting food and lifestyle choices.
The third dietary key for shedding abdominal fat (and fat in general) is intermittent fasting. This is really one of the most effective ways I’ve found to address excess weight, as it “resets” your body to start using fat as its primary fuel rather than sugar.
My Intermittent Fasting Recommendations
The version of intermittent fasting I recommend for those with insulin resistance is simply restricting your eating to a specific window of time every day, such as an eight-hour window.
For example, you could restrict your eating to the hours of 11am and 7pm. Essentially, you’re just skipping breakfast and making lunch your first meal of the day instead. This equates to a daily fasting of 16 hours—twice the minimum required to deplete your glycogen stores and start shifting into fat burning mode. I have experimented with a number of different schedules, and this is my personal preference as it’s really easy to comply with once your body has made the shift from burning sugar to burning fat.
Fat, being a slow-burning fuel, allows you to keep going without suffering from the dramatic energy crashes associated with sugar. And if you’re not hungry, or not eating for several hours is no big deal, I recommend following this eating schedule until your insulin/leptin resistance improves, your weight normalizes, and your health issues resolve, such as blood pressure, blood sugar, etc. After that, just do it as often as you need to keep yourself healthy without insulin resistance.
Foods That Can Help You Shed Belly Fat
A recent article4 by David Zinczenko, author of the book, Zero Belly Diet, addresses a number of specific foods that can help promote a leaner belly by decreasing inflammation, eliminating bloat, and turning off your fat storage genes. Zinczenko writes, in part:
“Zero Belly is based on the breakthrough science of ‘nutritional genetics…’ In early 2014, I put together a panel to test-drive the Zero Belly program, and I’ve been stunned by the results: The average person lost four inches off their waist — in just six weeks. The key to this program is a scientifically proven eating program that targets your fat genes — turning them to ‘off’ and making weight loss automatic. There’s no calorie counting, no deprivation. Zero Belly works in three ways:
1. First, it reduces bloating by cutting down on excess salt, dairy, and artificial sweeteners… Some of the test panelists lost up to three inches of bloat off their waist in just seven days.
2. Second, it heals your gut by feeding the ‘good’ microbes in your belly. A balanced gut reduces inflammation and helps to turn off your fat genes.
3. Third, it turbocharges your metabolism with protein, healthy fats, and quality fiber.”
The nine foods, or groups of foods that Zinczenko recommends eating include: plant-based smoothies high in protein, healthy fat, fiber, and resveratrol; eggs (I recommend eating only organic, pastured or free-range eggs); red fruits, olive oil and other healthy fats; high-fiber foods; nuts and seeds; meat (again my recommendation is to stick with organic, grass-fed varieties); leafy greens and brightly-colored veggies, along with plenty of fresh herbs and spices.
As Zinczenko points out, reestablishing a healthy gut flora is very important, as imbalances can have a significant impact on your weight. One hypothesis states that your gut bacteria may in fact be in control of your appetite. Recent research5 suggests there’s a positive-feedback loop between the foods you crave and the composition of the microbiota in your gut that depend on those nutrients for their survival. Microbes that thrive on sugar, for example, can signal your brain to eat more sweets.
Other studies have shown that certain bacteria found in your gut can produce insulin resistance and weight gain by triggering chronic low-grade inflammation in your body. Food processing, pasteurization, and sterilization also have a detrimental effect on your microbiome. For all of these reasons, and more, I always recommend a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods along with cultured or fermented foods.
Common Mistakes That Can Make Shedding Belly Fat More Difficult
Eating a diet too high in processed foods (and hence processed fructose and other added sugars), along with eating too frequently, tend to be among the primary causes of a bulging waistline. However, as discussed in a recent article,8 a number of other lifestyle factors can contribute to the problem. So, in addition to correcting your diet and implementing a fasting regimen, addressing the following factors may boost your chances of successfully eliminating those extra inches around your midriff:
1. Lack of exercise: To maximize your weight loss results, be sure to incorporate some form of high intensity interval training (HIIT). This short intense training protocol improves muscle energy utilization and expenditure, due to its positive effects on increasing muscle mass and improving muscle fiber quality. Muscle tissue burns three to five times more energy than fat tissues, so as you gain muscle, your metabolic rate increases, which allows you to burn more calories, even when you’re sleeping. Further, several studies have confirmed that exercising in shorter bursts with rest periods in between burns more fat than exercising continuously for an entire session.The combination of intermittent fasting and HIIT is a particularly potent combination, as when done in tandem it virtually forces your body to burn off excess body fat. To find the HIIT workout that works best for you, see my previous article: “This Interval Training Infographic Helps You Pick the Right Workout.” I also recommend getting more walking into your daily life. Ideally, aim for 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day, over and above your regular exercise regimen. Not only will this give your metabolism a boost in the right direction, it’s also necessary to counter the ill effects of too much sitting—which in and of itself increases your risk of insulin resistance and metabolic dysfunction, even if you exercise!
2. Magnesium deficiency: Magnesium is a mineral used by every organ in your body, especially your heart, muscles, and kidneys. If you suffer from unexplained fatigue or weakness, abnormal heart rhythms, or even muscle spasms and eye twitches, low levels of magnesium could be to blame. Researchers have also found that people who consume higher levels of magnesium tend to have lower blood sugar and insulin levels. Seaweed and green leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard can be excellent sources of magnesium, as are some beans, nuts, and seeds, like pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame seeds. Avocados also contain magnesium. Juicing your vegetables is an excellent option to ensure you’re getting enough of them in your diet.
3. Diet soda consumption: Contrary to popular belief, diet soda can actually double your risk of obesity compared to drinking none,9 and research has shown that drinking diet soda increases your risk of weight gain to a greater degree than regular soda. If you’re serious about weight loss, ditch all sweetened beverages, including artificially sweetened ones, and opt for pure filtered water.
4. Beer and alcohol consumption: Alcohol of all kinds will tend to promote weight gain, so consider cutting down on the number of drinks you indulge in each week. Beer has the added adverse effect of raising your uric acid levels, which promotes chronic inflammation.
5. Stress: Chronic stress will keep your stress hormones elevated, which can hinder weight loss efforts, so be sure to incorporate some stress-busting activities. As you learn how to effectively decrease your stress level, your cortisol will stabilize, your blood pressure will drop, and your health will improve in just about every way.It’s important to realize that stress management isn’t something you save up to do on the weekend—it needs to be done on a daily basis, because that’s how often stress rears its ugly head. There are many different stress reduction techniques, including: exercise, meditation, mindfulness training, yoga, spending time in nature, music, and EFT (emotional freedom techniques), the latter of which is a very effective form of energy psychology that can help “reprogram” your ingrained stress responses.
The Final Step: Exercises That Target Your Abs
Abdominal workouts should not be overlooked just because they won’t result in a slimmer waistline. Your abdominal muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability. Having a strong abdominal wall is very important for optimal body movement and gets increasingly more important with advancing age.
A strong abdominal wall is also what will produce that six-pack look once you’ve lost sufficient amounts of subcutaneous fat. To effectively train your core muscles, be sure to incorporate a variety of stabilization, functional, and traditional exercises, such as:
Functional exercises, including work on a stability ball
Stabilizing exercises, such as lying on the floor and pulling your belly back toward your spine and holding that position while breathing deeply
Extension exercises, such as lying on your stomach with arms extended above your head. Then raising both arms and both legs, at the same time, off the floor. (Hold for a count of 5, or 5 breaths, and slowly return to the floor)
Popular exercise programs that work your core muscles are widely available, and include virtually all types of yoga and Pilates. But there’s yet another exercise you might not have thought of: push-ups! That’s right. Push-ups don’t just give you a stronger upper body, they also train your abdominals—as long as you’re doing them correctly. I recommend watching Darin Steen’s demonstration of the proper form below, but I’ve also included a summary of key points to remember:
Keep your body stiff and straight as a plank
Elbows at a 45-degree angle from your sides
Breathe in on the way down
Lower your body all the way down, allowing your sternum to gently touch the floor
Breathe out on the way up
If you’re looking to get rock-hard abs, remember that proper dietary choices is your first step, ideally in combination with intermittent fasting and high intensity exercises. From there, a comprehensive lifestyle and fitness program that addresses factors such as sleep, stress, specific nutritional deficiencies, and targeted ab exercises, will help you achieve your goal.