9 Things You Shouldn't Do If You're Trying to Lose Belly Fat
Many people try to target stubborn belly fat through eating better and working out, yet it can feel like it's the last thing to go when you're trying to lose weight! It can certainly feel frustrating not seeing results as quickly as you'd like but slow and steady wins the race. And beyond superficial reasons, losing belly fat (also called visceral fat, which is the type of fat that surrounds your vital organs) can have some serious health benefits, like improved heart health and a decreased risk of developing diabetes.
To help you identify the habits that can hinder your progress—and ultimately help you hone in on the habits that may help—we spoke to Cathy Posey, RD, Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., RD, LDN and Nikola Djordjevic, M.D. Here's what they had to say about the top habits to avoid to help you lose visceral fat more efficiently.
1. Don't eat too late at night
It's best to get your in calories in earlier in the day, says Posey, rather than late at night. We need more energy during the day while we're working, cooking, caring for family members and ultimately moving our bodies more. And as our day winds down, we naturally need less energy. Eating dinner on the earlier side means you have extra time to utilize that energy before bed, so less of it gets stored, potentially as visceral or belly fat. This is not to say you should starve if you do happen to be hungry later on! Just go for a bedtime snack that's lower in calories with some protein, fat or fiber for satisfaction. Think popcorn, cottage cheese or nuts.
2. Don't ignore stress
If you keep putting off stress, it'll just get bottled up and cause you to maintain high stress levels, which Posey says can increase cortisol and lead to fat storage predominantly in the belly. "Stopping several times each day to actively release stress through deep breathing, a quick stretch or reading a positive quote can make more difference than counting calories—and counting calories is an additional source of stress for many people," she says. Find a way to release stress through self-care practices (and if counting calories stresses you out, then don't do it!)
Related: 7 Foods to Eat for Stress Relief
3. Don't skip movement during the day
Even if you go to a workout class or do core work a few times every week (which if you do, kudos!), staying sedentary for the majority of the day (hello, desk jobs and long commutes) can prevent visceral fat from budging. "Every time you move up the stairs rather than up the elevator, or walk around the block instead of staying on the couch, you keep muscles a little more toned," she explains. Take every opportunity to move as much as possible!
4. Don't forget to sleep
Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, helps keeps hormones in check, which in turn can help keep your appetite and cravings in check the next day. "If your body isn't rested, it cannot cooperate with weight loss or fat release. Poor sleep habits affect stress levels, hormone regulation and metabolic rhythms," she says. For instance, a night of little sleep has the potential to increase ghrelin, the hunger hormone, making you more likely to mindlessly eat during the day and choose high-calorie foods. It makes sense why your body does this—it needs more energy to function of less sleep!
That being said, good sleep can be hard to come by. But practicing good sleep habits can help. Pick up a book instead of your phone an hour before bed to help your body wind down. Set a bedtime alarm and try to stick to it each night. And while it might help you feel more relaxed at first, alcohol can actually make it harder to stay asleep during the night, so stick to just one drink with dinner, if any. Read more about healthy sleep habits here.
5. Don't forget to fuel your gut
"An unhealthy gut cannot absorb nutrients and remove waste efficiently. Highly processed foods, preservatives, artificial coloring and flavoring, chemicals and sugars destroy the normal flora of the gut. When that happens, the belly becomes bloated and distended," she explains. Beyond bloating, a weakened gut can cause inflammation throughout the body, which can make it hard to lose weight in general. To help fuel a healthy gut and beat inflammation, you'll want to eat whole foods as much as possible and keep foods high in added sugars, saturated fats and sodium to a minimum to help decrease visceral fat. Not to say you can never enjoy things like ice cream or chips! Just focus on those healthy whole foods more often.
Additionally, probiotics and prebiotics can help improve gut health. Probiotics include Greek yogurt or skyr, kimchi, kombucha, saurkraut and sourdough, while prebiotics include artichokes, apples, asparagus, garlic and bananas.
6. Don't over-do it on added sugar
Natural sugar is good in moderation (think: fruit), but eating too much added sugar can make it hard to lose weight, in addition to increasing your risk for chronic conditions, like diabetes and heart disease. "Unlike foods and drinks which naturally contain sugar, added sugars don't have any nutritional value," says Nikola Djordjevic, MD.
And while some is okay, added sugar has made it's way into so many foods that we eat daily. Think cereal, granola bars, bread, beverages and more. Too much added sugar puts pressure on the liver, where it's unable to process sugar completely and turns that sugar into fat. "Various studies have found that large amounts of fructose can increase belly and liver fat. A quick solution for our sweet tooth would be to eat fruit low in sugar such as blackberries, strawberries, honeydews and peaches or consider some low-carb dessert recipes," Djordjevic says.
7. Don't forget about complex carbs
"Eating refined carbs like bread, rice, pasta and cookies [in excess] will increase our belly fat. If we want to lose it, we should focus on eating nutrient- and fiber-rich carbs such as vegetables and low-glycemic fruits," says Djordjevic.
Eating too many refined carbs at once has the tendency to quickly spike our blood sugar—and soon after send it plummeting too low. When our blood sugar is too low, our body makes us crave more carbs to get it back up. This triggers a tricky cycle. Choosing fiber-rich carbs, like veggies, fruits and whole grains, help to keep our blood sugar levels stable, which in turn results in healthy eating habits that help promote a healthy weight.
8. Don't booze too hard
"Eat all the kale you want, but if you're marring your edible intake by guzzling booze that can result in visceral fat (belly fat). Alcohol is uniquely adept at stimulating insulin secretion and therefore belly fat—even if you're doing 'zero-carb' martinis," says Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., RD, LDN, nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition. Be very mindful of your alcohol intake and pair booze with food and water. Also, don't use juices, tonics, syrups and artificial sweeteners when mixing and take stock of your weekly count of drinks to keep it to as minimum as possible, she says. This will help you trim down that visceral fat and avoid bloating.
9. Don't rely heavily on artificial sweeteners
Sweetening that cup of java with artificial sugar can backfire. "Artificial sweeteners can disturb the gut's delicate microbiome and confuse your brain—it thinks its getting something sweet because of the taste, but the calories don't come—and this actually prompts insulin secretion and therefore visceral fat storage, perhaps even more forcefully than sugar would," says Moreno. You're better off skipping the sweeteners all together, or even just using a teaspoon of honey, real sugar or coconut sugar if you need a bit of sugar.