Belly fat: how to lose belly fat according to science

Reviewed by Felix Gussone, MD, Ro, 

Written by Amelia Willson 

Reviewed by Felix Gussone, MD, Ro, 

Written by Amelia Willson 

last updated: Jun 27, 2023

7 min read

When it comes to belly fat, there’s bad news and there’s good news.

The bad news is that there’s no single way to lose belly fat or slow weight gain. You can’t just bicycle-crunch your way to a smaller waistline.

But that’s also good news. There are a dozen ways to lose belly fat, and they all start with living a healthier lifestyle. Read on as we explain why belly fat is so bad, and share scientifically proven ways to lose belly fat.

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What is belly fat?

What people call “belly fat” typically refers to two different types of abdominal fat. The first is subcutaneous fat, which is located just under your skin. Below that you’ll find visceral fat that protects and warms your organs around your midsection. Having too much visceral fat can be bad for your health

Where we gain weight can vary based on age, sex, and genetics, but in general, the more weight you gain, the more belly fat you’ll have. Throughout our lives, it is normal to have varying amounts of belly fat.

Why is belly fat bad for your health?

The more belly fat you have, the higher your risk of metabolic conditions like high blood pressurehigh cholesterolinsulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. Increased belly fat, with or without obesity, is also linked to a higher risk of heart disease

Belly fat is bad due to its location, particularly visceral fat. When you have too much of it, visceral fat is linked to chronic inflammation. Certain molecules called “adipokines,” may raise your risk of health problems like heart issues, cancer, depression, and kidney disease.

12 ways to lose belly fat

Losing belly fat isn’t about doing planks and crunches — although those won’t hurt. It’s about eating better, building muscle, and losing fat overall. Here are 12 ways to get started. 

1. Eat less

The key to losing weight is burning more calories than you consume. Adopting a reduced-calorie diet can help you lose fat and body weight if you are overweight. People who eat healthy diets tend to have less visceral fat. 

If counting calories isn’t for you, try making other changes such as:

2. Eat more fiber

Fiber is filling, and here’s why: your body can’t digest it as easily as other foods. So, when you eat fiber, it slows your digestion way down. As a result, you tend to feel full sooner, eat less, and not feel hungry again for a while. All this can lead to weight loss and less belly fat. (By the same token, eating less fiber is associated with obesity, overweight, and weight gain.)

One study found that simply eating more fiber alone — without any other interventions — can lead to weight loss. In another study, increased fiber intake was linked to reduced visceral fat. 

The American Heart Association recommends eating 30 grams of fiber daily from foods, not supplements. You can find fiber in fruits, vegetables, and beans

3. Choose healthy fats

Not all fats are created equal. Some fats are unhealthy, cranking up cholesterol and increasing your risk of weight gain, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Saturated and trans fats are both unhealthy fats. Too much fat in general can lead to weight gain, but one study found that saturated fat in particular can double your belly fat. 

So, how can you tell the difference between good and bad fats? Unhealthy fats are often solid at room temperature (think palm or coconut oil), while healthy fats tend to be liquid at room temperature (think olive or avocado oil). Also, if the food is fried or processed, it most likely contains unhealthy fats. Red meats, whole-fat dairy products (e.g. butter and whole milk), and pastries like cake and donuts also contain saturated fats

Instead, choose healthy fats in nuts, avocado, olive oil, flax and sunflower seeds, peanut butter, and fatty fish like salmon and tuna (hello, omega-3 fatty acids!).

4. Eat more protein

Like fiber and unsaturated fats, protein helps you feel full. Are you sensing a theme yet?

Higher-protein diets are associated with more calorie burning, faster metabolism, and lower cardiometabolic risk. Eating more protein has also been linked to lower body fat, while maintaining lean muscle mass. Plus, among those who lose weight, high-protein diets have proven to help them keep the weight off. 

Experts recommend eating 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal. Some studies have found that eating higher-quality proteins (proteins with more essential amino acids) leads to less abdominal fat. High-quality proteins include beef, eggs, and low-fat milk. Other good sources of protein include:

  • Tofu

  • Beans

  • Lentils

  • Turkey or chicken with the skin removed

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

5. Cook at home more often

One way to ensure you’re getting the right mix of nutrients? Cooking your own meals at home.

People who cook more at home tend to have less body fat. In one study, people who ate at home at least six days per week were 24% less likely to have extra body fat, and 28% less likely to have a body mass index (BMI) associated with being overweight, than those who cooked at home two days or less. 

6. Eat less sugar

Higher sugar consumption is linked to excess belly fat and an increased risk of obesity, inflammation, cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin resistance. Plus, sugar makes you want to eat more, leading to more blood sugar highs and lows. That roller coaster can be fatiguing, leading you to once again reach for the sugar out of exhaustion. 

Sugar shows up in simple and refined carbohydrates — think cookies, cereal, and white bread — as well as more surprising places like fruit juice. Not only does fruit juice not contain the fiber you get from a piece of fruit, but it mostly has sugar and extra empty calories, leading to weight gain. 

7. Limit the alcohol

Alcohol can also contain sugar and empty calories, and we’re not just talking about cocktails with extra syrups and sweeteners. Wine, beer, and more can have more calories than you realize.

Alcohol is linked to obesity, especially heavy drinking. And drinking lowers your inhibition, so you may be more likely to overeat after drinking. In one study, participants were given either a drink of alcohol or a placebo masked as alcohol and then asked to taste cookies. As you might have guessed, those who had consumed the alcohol ate more cookies.

8. Drink more water

Fill your glass with water instead of alcohol, soda, and fruit juice. Drinking water is part of a healthy lifestyle, but it’s also been associated with a loss of fat and body weight. 

If water tastes boring to you, make it exciting by infusing it with fresh fruit or cucumber. Cut up some slices of orange, strawberry, lemon, or whatever calls to you.

9. Exercise regularly

What you eat plays a larger role in fat loss than how you move. However, exercise is key to keeping belly fat at bay. The idea of exercise can feel overwhelming if you’re new to it, but walking is a great place to start, since you already do a bit of it every day. It’s just about increasing the length and making time to walk just to walk. 

In one study, women with obesity started walking for three days per week, between 50-70 minutes at a time. Twelve weeks later, the walkers had lost significantly more subcutaneous and visceral adipose fat than the control group which maintained a sedentary lifestyle. 

If you’re up for it, try aerobic exercises like bicycling, runningswimming, or walking (faster). Studies have found that moderate- to high-intensity aerobic or cardio workouts are especially effective at reducing visceral fat. 

High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is another option. HIIT involves doing quick bursts of exercise that raise your heart rate and build muscle, like quick sprints, jumping jacks, abdominal exercises, or push-ups. Try exercising for 30-second intervals, followed by 10 seconds of rest, for 20 minutes.

Sprinkle in some strength training as well. Resistance training helps you build muscle, and more muscle means a faster metabolism. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn — even after your workout is over.

10. Stress less

Stress doesn’t just wreak havoc on our emotional state; it also affects us physically. When we’re stressed, we’re more likely to overeat and less likely to exercise. 

The more stressed you are, the more weight you may gain. All that increased cortisol can translate to more belly fat, in particular, leading to a higher risk of obesity and a bigger waistline.

Explore stress management techniques to discover what relaxes you. Yogameditation, and even simple breathing exercises can help.

11. Sleep more

Beyond making you feel grumpy and groggy, a lack of sleep can lead to belly fat by messing with your hormones, making you feel hungrier, and increasing your cravings for sugary, high-calorie foods. 

People who sleep too little (six or less hours per day), as well as too much (nine or more hours per day), are more likely to gain weight and accumulate visceral fat. Too little sleep also worsens stress, which can lead to overeating.

Make room to sleep seven to eight hours per night.

12. Look inward

Try to figure out what’s behind some of your less healthy habits contributing to belly fat. Do you notice you crave sugar when you feel stressed, bored, or sad? Do you pair eating with other activities like watching TV? 

Once you notice these behaviors, you can stop them, or replace them with healthier activities. For example, if you like to snack while watching TV, change it up by finding another way to occupy your hands. Instead, you might:

  • Stretch

  • Draw or doodle

  • Cook or meal prep

  • Knit

  • Massage yourself

Also, pay attention to how your new, healthier behaviors feel. How do you feel after eating one of your home-cooked meals, or after exercising? Savor that feeling of feeling good, as it will motivate you to keep up with your new lifestyle changes.

Weight loss

Get access to GLP-1 medication (if prescribed) and 1:1 support to meet your weight goals

Can weight loss medication help with belly fat?

Yes, weight loss medications can help with weight and fat loss, especially GLP-1 medications like OzempicSaxenda, and Wegovy. For example, after completing a clinical trial, adults taking Saxenda had lost an average of 9.2% of their body weight in about a year, when Saxenda was paired with a reduced-calorie diet and increased physical activity.

Meanwhile, people taking Wegovy (semaglutide) lose nearly 15% of their body weight, on average, within a year and a half of starting treatment. They also experience significant reductions in their total body fat and belly fat.

Weight loss medications are designed to be used in combination with exercise and a reduced-calorie diet, which helps you create sustainable habits to lose weight and keep it off. This is where a weight loss program like Ro can help. 

Ro’s licensed healthcare providers work with you to design a weight loss plan tailored to you and your personal goals. Based on your consultation and the results of your metabolic lab test, they’ll prescribe the best weight-loss medication for your situation. Ro’s insurance concierge will even coordinate with your insurance plan to get you coverage, if possible. Learn more about what you can expect with the Ro Body program.

The best way to lose belly fat is to live a healthier lifestyle that includes better food choices, more physical activity, and other healthy habits like more sleep and less stress. 

DISCLAIMER

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.


How we reviewed this article

Every article on Health Guide goes through rigorous fact-checking by our team of medical reviewers. Our reviewers are trained medical professionals who ensure each article contains the most up-to-date information, and that medical details have been correctly interpreted by the writer.

Current version

June 27, 2023

Written by

Amelia Willson

Fact checked by

Felix Gussone, MD


About the medical reviewer

Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.

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