Belly fat: 3 science-approved ways to trim an inch

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By Meghan Holohan

American adults got some bad fitness news this week. While our overall body-mass index hasn't changed in the last decade, our waistlines are still spreading. That means we’re not necessarily getting heavier, but we’re gaining the weight in the worst place: our bellies. 

How can we drop that inch or more?

No one knows exactly how long it takes to trim your waistline (don't be fooled by those 30-day promises), but it's worth the work. 

“Abdominal obesity has been linked to the increase in diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” but it is also linked to metabolic abnormalities, says Dr. Esa Davis, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Aging, stress, poor diet and too little exercise all contribute to bigger waistlines.

“People tend to gain weight primarily in the middle,” says Dr. David Heber, director of UCLA Risk Factor for Obesity Clinic. “As you age, your muscle goes down and your fat goes up so your weight stays the same … Body composition is more important than body weight.”

And our stressful lives make it more challenging to trim the weight, says Dr. Daniel Neides, medical director of Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. “We are overworked. We don’t take vacation,” he says.

There’s no magic formula to lose an inch, but research shows a few lifestyle changes over many months can help people shed some pounds. TODAY's lifestyle and fitness correspondent Jenna Wolfe also provides ways to get and stay active. 

Eat lean protein

“Not enough people eat enough protein,” says Heber. “They cheat and eat carbohydrates.”

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Too many carbs break down to too much sugar, turning into excess weight. Heber sees patients with bellies who have an otherwise healthy BMI, a sign they’re eating too many empty carbs and not enough protein. Protein builds muscles and keeps them toned.      

People should eat lean protein, such as chicken and fish, complex carbohydrates, and lots of colorful fruits and vegetables.

But, he says: “You can’t lose abdominal fat simply by dieting. You must include the exercise.”

Find the exercise sweet spot

You need at least 200 to 300 minutes of brisk cardiovascular activity weekly, about 30 to 50 minutes daily.

Cardio helps inches disappear. Core exercises, such as crunches or yoga and Pilates, will firm up your tummy.

Do resistance training, such as weight lifting, push-ups or even chair squats, to help maintain muscle as you get older.

“We often get asked if core exercise will help. It will tone the muscle under the fat. Typically, it is cardiovascular exercise that we recommend [for weight loss],” Nicole Meyer, a clinical exercise physiologist at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics.

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But she warns: “Even people who get the guideline amount of exercise can still be very sedentary.”

Desk jobs and bingeing on Netflix means people can be both healthy and still not move enough.

Remember to stand during the day or take a walk around the office to increase daily activity.


Meditate for 10 minutes. Breathe deeply. Take a yoga class.

Stress causes our bodies to secrete higher levels of cortisol, a hormone, which in turn boosts insulin levels. The cortisol holds onto the fat and stashes it in our bellies.

“Just a few minutes a day of incorporating some of these things has a significant impact,” says Neides. “Really incorporating a holistic anti-inflammatory lifestyle and you will get rid of your belly fat.”

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