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Losing belly fat is hard. These 5 healthy habits can help

Follow these three steps to determine if your waist size is healthy — and find out what you can do if it's not.
Illustration of fit woman and fruits
Filling half of your plate with fruits and veggie increases your fiber intake and reduces overall calorie intake, which can help reduce belly fat.Katty Huertas / TODAY / Getty Images

A slim waist and a flat stomach are coveted for the way they look, but it turns out that losing belly fat may not only help you feel better in a bathing suit — it can also improve your health.

Belly fat, or visceral fat, isn’t the type of fat that’s under your skin (subcutaneous); the kind you can pinch. Instead, it’s deep within our abdomen, in between our organs. Why is it that some people store fat around their middle and some don’t? Where we store fat on our bodies is determined by various factors, including hormones and genetics. Women tend to begin to gain more belly fat as estrogen levels start to drop during menopause. Also, as we age our muscle mass starts to decrease, which causes us to burn fewer calories, leading to weight gain.

Why is belly fat dangerous?

Belly fat is linked to an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, breathing problems and pancreatitis. In women, it’s specifically linked to breast cancer and the need to have gallbladder surgery.

How do I know if I have too much belly fat?

Waist size, especially in women, is a better predictor of heart attack risk than BMI (body mass index). And even people who are at a normal weight can be carrying too much belly fat. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can determine if your waist is at an unhealthy size in three easy steps:

  1. Wrap a measuring tape around your waist, just above your hipbones.
  2. Exhale (but don’t suck your stomach in), then look at the measurement. In general, risk increases when your waist measure more than 35 inches for women or 40 inches for men. If you’re from South Asia, China or Japan, your risk rises if this measurement is more than 31 inches for women or greater than 35 inches for men.
  3. You can also measure your hips to get a waist-to-hip ratio. Measure your hips by putting the tape measure around the widest part of your hips. Divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement. The healthy range is less than 0.8 for women and 0.9 for men.

How to lose belly fat: 5 easy tips

Age-related weight gain and genetics may be working against you, but you can still take steps to reduce belly fat and boost your health.

1. Get active daily

Getting exercise not only burns calories but can also help you maintain muscle mass as you age, which helps keep your metabolism going steady. It’s best to get a combination of cardiovascular exercise and resistance (weight bearing) training. The World Health Organization recommends getting a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity — or a combo of the two — each week. If you like to track your steps, you can set a goal to meet daily. While 10,000 steps is a wonderful goal, you don’t necessarily need that many to see a benefit.

2. Reduce added sugars

According to the USDA’s 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines, we should be keeping our added sugar intake to no more than 10% of our total calories. For a 2000-calorie diet, that’s a maximum of 200 calories, or 12 teaspoons. Currently, most Americans are eating about three times as much! Those added sugars lurk in so many foods, not just in the obvious ones like ice cream, candy and cakes. Added sugars (not the naturally occurring sugars in fruit and milk) are also found in various foods from condiments to crackers, so make sure to look at ingredient lists when shopping for products. Also, sweetened beverages, like energy drinks, soda, sweetened teas and other drinks can rack up grams of added sugar. It’s smarter to stick with water (sparkling or plain) and unsweetened teas.

3. Eat more plants

Fruits and vegetables can help fight belly fat in several ways. First, the fiber they contain helps give us a feeling of fullness, which can be the difference between feeling satisfied with your lunch, or craving a high-calorie snack just an hour after eating. Second, many fruits, and nearly all vegetables are relatively low in calories, so filling your plate with them can help you reduce your overall calorie intake without having to count calories. Just a reminder: Women should aim for 25 grams of fiber each day, while men need to aim for 38 grams. Most of us don’t get enough! Try to fill half of your plate or bowl with colorful fruits and veggies at each meal. (Bonus: eating more plants will help you feel less bloated, too).

4. Get enough protein

Protein may not help burn belly fat, but it’s helpful for general weight maintenance because it helps us feel satisfied. Studies have shown that people who eat a higher protein snack have less post-snack hunger, more feelings of fullness and wait longer until their next meal. Protein-rich snacks include Greek yogurt, nuts and nut butter, beef or turkey jerky, some energy bars, hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna or salmon on crackers, hummus and veggies, edamame and cottage cheese. And research shows that protein intake has an inverse relationship with belly fat — the more protein you eat, the less belly fat you’ll have. And by eating more plant-based proteins, you’ll also get additional fiber.

5. Stick to portion sizes

Americans love big portions! It has been clear for years that increasing portion sizes, at restaurants and at home, have contributed to weight gain in both adults and kids. It can be confusing to know what a portion size should be, especially when you’re eating from a large container of really tasty food. Learning what an appropriate portion of various foods looks like can help you avoid eating excess calories. And serving those portions in smaller containers (smaller plates, bowls, etc.) can help you feel more satisfied with a smaller amount — really!

Dealing with belly fat can be frustrating, but if you implement the strategies above, they can add up to some real results and serious health benefits. You’ve got this!