Photo: Getty / Witsanu Thangsombat; EyeEm
Belly fat seems to be the last thing to go when you're trying to lose weight. And of course, for superficial reasons, many people try and target that stubborn belly fat through eating better and working out (hello, ab work!)
However, while belly fat isn't something people love carrying around, you shouldn't aim lose weight just to look good in your bathing suit—losing belly fat can also lower your risk of certain diseases down the road. The fat concentrated in the belly, as opposed to on the butt and thighs, for example, is associated with various diseases and poor lifestyle conditions, where "belly fat is caused by more than excess calories; it is linked to insulin resistance, high stress, poor fitness, irregular sleep and an unhealthy gut," says Cathy Posey, RD. Yikes.
Here are nine habits you should avoid to banish your belly fat ASAP.
It's best to get your in calories in earlier in the day, says Posey, rather than late at night when you don't have time to burn them off and they can spike your blood sugar. Try eating dinner earlier, and if you really do need a snack before bed, keep it small and high in protein and low in sugar (like some cottage cheese).
You can also try intermittent fasting to help get rid of belly fat. Posey says, "Intermittent fasting can be very helpful in reducing your body's resistance to insulin. Limiting your meals to an eight- or ten-hour section of the day gives your body a break that it needs to use insulin most effectively." The same number of calories consumed within eight hours earlier in the day will often result in more weight loss than if they were eaten over a period of ten or twelve hours, she says. Schedule time off from eating to do your belly some good.
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
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 belly 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!
You should be getting those 7-8 hours of sleep a night, which keeps hormones in check and helps suppress your appetite and lower cravings 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 will increase ghrelin, the hunger hormone, making you more likely to mindlessly eat in the day and choose unhealthy foods. Instead, you want higher leptin, which suppresses appetite, and you can have a good balance by setting an alarm for yourself and going to bed on time.
"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. So, you'll want to eat whole foods as much as possible and avoid most packaged, processed foods to keep your belly trim. Plus, try eating probiotics and prebiotics to improve gut health. Probiotics include Greek yogurt or skyr, kimchi, kombucha, saurkraut and sourdough, while prebiotics include artichokes, apples, asparagus, garlic and bananas.
Natural sugar is good in moderation (think: fruit), but added sugar is no friend to your belly. "Unlike foods and drinks which naturally contain sugar, added sugars don't have any nutritional value. Highly addictive, they are consequently endangering our health," says Nikola Djordjevic, MD. 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.
There's a reason people are hopping on the keto bandwagon, which keeps carbs to around 25 net grams a day. While you don't need to restrict as much and go totally keto, cutting carbs in favor of protein and healthy fats can directly help you trim belly fat. "Eating refined carbs like bread, rice, pasta and cookies 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.
"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, MS, RD, LD/N, 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 the belly and avoid bloating. Alcohol makes you retain water, so that surely doesn't help!
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 belly 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.