Health & Fitness: You asked: how to get rid of belly fat safely & sustainably

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'How to lose belly fat', 'how to lose stomach fat' and 'the best exercise to lose belly fat' are among Google's most-searched health terms. This in itself is proof that stubborn belly fat (a.k.a. belly pooch or lower stomach fat) is a source of insecurity for many people, but besides that, 43% of UK women surveyed* by Women's Health openly told us that an undefined stomach is their biggest insecurity when naked in front of a partner.

The problem is when we want to lose this kind of weight we often set arbitrary timelines. For example, trying to mine the internet for the answers to how to lose belly fat fast (we're going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you mean "as efficiently and as safely as possible" ????), the quickest way to lose belly fat, or how to lose belly fat in a week.

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To achieve said goals sounds appealing, we know, but the reality is that these kinds of approaches mean you're probably less likely to get rid of stomach fat, and even less likely to keep it off if you do manage to lose some. Plus, following so-called "quick-fix" solutions could have an extremely detrimental impact on your health – both physical and mental. The best way to lose belly fat, if that's a goal of yours, is to adopt healthy life-long habits.

That being said, consider this your full guide to learn how to lose belly fat safely and sustainably. Here are 11 questions you may have about how to lose stomach fat – answered

A quick caveat: This guide will absolutely not answer the question of ‘how can I lose belly fat fast’ or 'how can I lose belly fat in a week'. Sustainable weight loss, underpinned by healthy habits and lifestyle change, is the key to long term results. Not crash dieting which often ends in renewed weight gain and an emotional rollercoaster that could take months or years to recover from.

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1. What is belly fat?

First things first. Before we talk about how to lose stomach fat or the best way to lose belly fat, it’s important to know exactly what belly fat is.

'Belly fat or abdominal fat is the subcutaneous (under the skin) fat that sits around the waist and provides a store of energy, and also protection and heat, for the organs,' says Tarik Belalij, personal trainer and nutritionist at Everyone Active Becontree Leisure Centre.

'Small amounts of fat below the skin is normal and healthy, it is the visceral fat, which surrounds the organs that can be the most dangerous type of fat – leading to heart attacks and diabetes.'

How do you know if you’ve got this type of fat situation going on? 'Excessive visceral fat is what causes the "beer gut" (also known as belly pooch), pushing the stomach out from the inside,' Belalij says. So, to reiterate, we’re not talking bloating, which comes and goes, we're talking about actual belly fat tissue.

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2. How much body fat should you have?

The way in which women could and should lose belly fat is different to that of men. Women need some belly fat to function – fat cells store oestrogen, so having too little can cause your whole hormonal function to go out of whack, causing serious health issues such as irregular periods and even infertility.

To that end, striving to lose fat from your stomach with the aim of getting a six-pack, for most females, wouldn't be healthy. Instead, aim to sit within the 21-30% body fat category. This is what's considered a healthy body fat percentage range for women.

3. How long does it take to lose belly fat?

As mentioned, anyone wondering how to lose belly fat fast isn't alone, but this isn't always realistic, and almost always not sustainable. It plays out differently for every single person. Our genetics, age, lifestyle, stress and sleep all play a role in how fast we lose belly fat – the same goes for all body fat actually.

It's not about trying to lose belly fat in a week or lose stomach fat fast – it's about sticking to a pace that keeps you trucking on. For most people, the best way to lose belly fat looks like an 80/20 split of healthy habits and ones that are, perhaps, more fun than functional.

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Read our complete guide on how long it takes to lose weight.

4. What is the best exercise to lose belly fat?

Before you ask about the best exercises for a flat stomach, let's get clear on why crunches and sit-ups alone not going to be the thing to help you lose belly fat. 'While crunches will help strengthen your abdominals and core muscles, they’re not enough in isolation to burn calories,' Luke Hughes, Origym PT says.

Instead, Hughes recommends a rounded bodyweight or free weights workout routine done at a higher intensity as the best exercise to lose belly fat. These sessions will help to burn calories and increase muscle mass, which will, in turn, tap into your body fat stores – even within a limited time period.

Do note though, too much HIIT can elevate cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body, which could hinder how effectively you lose stomach fat (more on this below). Aim for three to four sessions per week and make sure you're allowing your body plenty of time and space to recover.

'Burning calories through cardio exercise like this helps to burn belly fat, particularly when we operate at a calorie deficit,' says Hughes. 'Try adding star jumps and mountain climbers into your workouts.'

Cardio workouts to lose belly fat

  • This 28-day plan by Alice Liveing will teach you the basics of strength training, helping you to build lean muscle with foundation moves.
  • Or, this four-week Kayla Itsines workout plan incorporates HIIT to burn fat and tone muscle.
  • PT Gauri Chopra's four week HIIT plan will help to burn fat efficiently and increase your stamina and muscular endurance.

'The key to continually improving and losing belly fat is to scale up your workouts every week. Incrementally increase the intensity and load of your workouts, and you will soon see improvements to your fitness,' says Hughes.

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The best exercise for belly fat

We've been conditioned to think that super hard exercise (and isolation stomach exercises) are going to be the things to help us get results, especially when we're trying to lose lower belly fat. In fact – surprise, surprise – it's much more holistic than that and is about keeping your nutrition, exercise and general movement in check concurrently.

Outside of gym workouts (and home workouts), the movement you're doing walking to the shops, making a cup of tea or taking your pooch out to stretch their legs can actually contribute more to hitting your healthy fat loss goals. This type of movement is known as NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) and is a cornerstone of healthy body composition.

'NEAT simply refers to the energy used carrying out any daily activity that isn't formal exercise (e.g. running or resistance training) or sleeping,' says Elliott Upton, personal trainer at Ultimate Performance and Head of LiveUP Online Coaching.

NEAT plays a major role in how much energy you expend per day (aka how many calories you burn) and increasing your metabolic rate. It also helps control your blood sugar, aid muscle recovery, lower stress levels and improve cardiovascular health.

You can increase your NEAT by walking instead of taking public transport, opting for the stairs over the elevator or doing household chores. Whichever you choose, they'll all contribute to the process in which you lose stomach fat.

Learn everything you need to know about NEAT exercise with this full explainer.

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5. What exercise burns the most abdominal fat?

Let's clear something up: there is no way to spot-reduce fat. So, frustrating as it may feel, there isn't any one exercise that burns the most abdominal fat.

Fat loss occurs when there's a calorie deficit (so, when you consume less calories than your body utilises). When you consume less than your body requires it recruits fuel from energy stores within the body, but not from one specific location. Areas that you lose – and gain – fat from first ultimately depends on your genetic makeup.

So, basically, the exercise that burns the most abdominal fat is really just exercise that contributes towards a calorie deficit – and it's, ideally, a type of exercise that you genuinely enjoy doing, since you're more likely to be consistent with movement when it feels fun.

6. What is the best diet to lose belly fat?

You can't out-exercise a bad diet. Fact. To lose belly fat (and this goes for all body fat), you need to be in a calorie deficit.

'When it comes to knowing how to lose belly fat, the best way to start is to watch what you eat,' Belalij says. 'When you digest large amounts of calories, your body allocates some of these to functional systems which work to keep you alive (think the brain, muscles and organs),' says Belalij. 'It also uses it to fill up energy stores. Any excess is then stored in fat cells around the body – typically being those of the belly.'

But like we've said, learning how to get rid of belly fat shouldn't come at the expense of your health, so you want to make sure you're not cutting back too much. To calculate your ideal (and healthy) calorie deficit, check out our handy guide below. It'll help you work out how many calories you need to eat a day to hit your goals, without going too far. (We'll get onto what foods to focus on shortly!)

text: calorie deficit calculator calorie deficit calculator

Worried about the price of healthy eating? Stock up on cheap healthy snacks. By having healthier food in the house you're less likely to face-plant the sugary stuff when hunger strikes.

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Best foods to lose belly fat

It's not all about eating less. Music to our ears, we're sure you'll agree. Rather than simply cutting down on kcals, you need to consider the kind of food you're consuming, too. (In most cases, you actually have to eat a lot more nutrient-dense food to hit the same calorie count as processed ones.)

Belalij suggests building meals around lots of nutrient-rich vegetables, a source of protein and some healthy, unprocessed carbs. 'Start with leafy greens such as spinach, kale and collard greens, then add carrots, broccoli and peas.'

'Lean meats, including turkey and chicken, are ideal as they are lower in fat and therefore calories, or, if you are vegetarian/vegan, add in tofu or a handful of nuts such as pine, cashew or almonds and a sprinkling of seeds (sunflower, sesame, pumpkin). When it comes to carbohydrates, rice, quinoa and potatoes are perfect.'

Your best course of action is to make small, manageable changes, and figure out what's most sustainable for you. Remember: we're after long term change, not short-lived tweaks. Cutting down on processed foods will also likely help with water retention which, while it's not an approach we'd recommend, can be helpful for anyone searching 'how to lose belly fat in a week'.

What foods help burn belly fat?

Can we be honest? No foods can help to burn belly fat. That's just not how it works.

There are, however, nutrient-dense foods that you can incorporate into your diet to help you load up on goodness whilst you're aiming for a calorie deficit. They include, but aren't limited to:

  • Eggs
  • Oats
  • Leafy greens
  • Berries
  • Wholegrain bread
  • Fish
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Asparagus
  • Potatoes
  • Peas
  • Greek Yoghurt
  • Avocado
  • Lentils
  • Quinoa
  • Apples
  • Bananas

It's also important to remember that food is to be enjoyed, so the key to a sustainable diet is creating one that's full of produce you look forward to eating and with meals that leave you feeling satisfied and not craving more due to restriction. ‘While the number of calories in food affects satiety [the feeling of fullness], it’s much more complex than that,’ explains Dr Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State University. ‘Satiety – and how long that feeling is sustained – depends on numerous factors, including portion size, how long it takes to eat a food, its texture and how filling you expect it to be.'

4 foods to reduce if you're trying to lose belly fat

  1. Processed foods: Dense in calories, carbs, fats and sugars, these are essentially a belly fat inducing combination – typically they’re nutritionally unsatisfying but mood-wise pretty feel good, meaning you can’t help but eat more. And more.
  2. Alcohol: Seven cals per gram may not sound like much but one or two G&Ts later and they soon add up. Plus, because the breakdown of alcohol is prioritised, its energy quickly tops up glycogen supplies with the remainder being stored as fat.
  3. Inflammatory foods: These could be types of sugar or simply any food that doesn’t agree with you, as this causes your stomach to flare up, sending the body into panic mode and increasing fat storage as a safety mechanism.
  4. Sauces and dressing: Read unnecessary hidden calories. Flavour your food with calorie-free herbs and spices, instead.

Notice we said reduce, though, not remove. It's really important to avoid unnecessarily cutting out entire food groups. 'This will lead to a restrictive diet that is unsustainable and likely cause a yo-yo effect with weight loss and regaining,' explains Catherine Rabess, dietitian and NHS dietetic manager. 'Don't demonise your food or view meals like good or bad or cheat days or treats as this could develop into an unhealthy relationship with food.'

7. How do I lose lower belly fat?

Working to lose stomach fat and lower belly fat comes down to nailing a handful of things regularly, including your nutrition and daily movement. However, there are some other factors that'll play a part too. So, here's the expert-backed advice to keep you on track to lose lower belly fat safely.

1. Watch your stress

'Stress may be an evolutionary response that helps keep us alive,' says performance nutritionist and qualified dietitian, Tom Irving, 'but frequent and persistent doses can elevate cortisol levels, which is both inflammatory as well as antilipolytic (anti-fat burning).'

Why? Well, when we're in "flight or flight" mode, the body releases glucose (energy) into the blood to prepare you for a difficult situation, explains Catherine Rabess, dietitian and NHS dietetic manager.

'Once the adrenaline wears off the blood glucose (energy) levels drop, leaving the brain to send signals of hunger and increasing appetite. This could be in the form of sugary cravings. It's completely normal.'

Often, this kind of stress is associated with unhealthy habits like emotional eating, not getting enough sleep, skipping meals, eating quick and accessible fast food and exercising less, she adds – all of which can lead to unhealthy weight gain.

Add a couple of years plus of COVID-19 upheaval into the mix and you'll understand why you might find it more difficult to lose body fat now than previously. This isn't something to beat yourself up over. It just means you may need to be more vigilant about managing your stress as much as you can by controlling what's controllable and reminding yourself that losing body fat needn't be your biggest priority right now.

2. Look at the quality of your sleep

Don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep, too. Yes, it can help combat under-eye bags but, according to the University of Leeds, adults who get more than six hours of sleep per night are likely to carry 3cm less around their waist.

Head to bed (and eat your dinner) earlier and follow the WH how to get to sleep guide to ensure a lack of shut-eye doesn’t hold you back from losing belly fat.

3. Think about your gut

Followed everything above to the letter, but not losing lower belly fat as quickly as you might like? It could be that the levels of good to bad bacteria in your gut aren’t at their optimum.

Researchers from Washington University found that people with excess weight, including abdominal fat, tend to have greater numbers of Firmicutes bacteria, suggesting this one could encourage the body to absorb more calories from food. Don’t believe us? Here’s what your poop can tell you about your belly fat.

4. Get outside

According to Hughes, a lack of sunlight can increase levels of belly fat. Indeed, findings presented at the European Society of Endocrinology annual meeting, revealed that, in women, both total and abdominal fat were associated with lower levels of vitamin D.

In addition to sunlight, vitamin D can be obtained from food and supplements. Check out nutritionist Rob Hobson’s guide to overcoming a vitamin D deficiency.

If you're not sure how to make the most of your time outside why not try this month-long walking for weight loss plan or learn to run for 30 minutes comfortably with a four-week running plan.

8. How do I lose belly fat fast?

Right, by "fast", we're going to have to assume you are looking for answers to how to lose belly fat efficiently and safely. That's the only way we know how to do things at WH and the only way we plan on doing things, too.

One way to make sure you're as dialled into your belly fat loss journey as possible is to get more granular with your nutrition. Now, if you're already familiar with counting calories, listen up – this is how to fine-tune your fat loss efforts to focus on how to lose belly fat in particular. It's known as learning how to count and calculate your macros.

"Counting macros" is a diet technique to make sure you're eating the right amounts of each macronutrient – protein, fat and carbohydrates. By tweaking the volume of each you can make your fat loss efforts more efficient.

How? Well, each macronutrient plays a different role in keeping our bodies ticking over. In broad strokes: protein helps to build and maintain muscle tissue, carbohydrates provide fast and slow-release energy and healthy fats support hormone function.

Tweaking the volumes you eat can help build muscle and lose body fat more efficiently, as well as allowing you to re-incorporate some of your favourite foods. Because you're looking at what makes up what you eat, foods that are less nutrient-dense can be incorporated (in moderation). All you'll need to do is work out how that impacts the rest of your day.

Counting macros isn't for everyone, but it can be a helpful guide if you find counting calories too restrictive.

a screenshot of a cell phone: how to calculate macros how to calculate macros

9. How can I lose my tummy in 7 days?

We think you already know what we're going to say, but we're going to go ahead and say it anyway. Whilst, technically speaking, you can lose weight over the course of a week, there's no magic diet nor secret hack that will enable you to shift an entire organ (read: tummy fat) within a week. And, any diet promising to enable such fat loss is, at best, unsustainable and, at worst, potentially damaging to your physical and mental wellbeing.

'The majority of diets follow the same cycle of ‘restrict, crave, binge, restrict’,' says Nutritionist Jenna Hope. 'During the restriction phase you may lose weight as you’re significantly limiting your calorie intake, or in some cases, your carbohydrate intake (in which case you’re losing water rather than fat mass). However, as the cycle continues you begin to regain the weight plus more due to the bingeing.'

So, in short, steer well clear.

10. What's the best way to burn belly fat if you're over 40?

One thing to note if you're a 40+ woman: losing belly fat naturally might be harder than before. Let us introduce you to a new word: somatopause. It refers to the time in your life when the growth hormone somatotropin begins to decline, something that happens once you hit your 40s.

Combined with declining levels of oestrogen and progesterone, fat storage will also tend to move from your hips and thighs to your stomach. But, this isn't the time to go HAM on HIIT workouts. Kate Rowe-Ham, personal trainer and founder of the Fit Hut in Sussex advises focussing on resistance training to build muscle tissue that'll support your metabolism as you age.

'You can’t spot-reduce fat,' says Rowe-Ham, referring to the myth of removing fat from specific parts of your body. 'Increasing lean body mass by building muscle is the most sustainable way forward if healthy weight loss is the goal.'

Try these workouts to build muscle and lose belly fat

  • This simple to follow gym workout is brilliant for beginners.
  • New to resistance training? Get to grips with everything circuit training – it burns fat and builds muscular endurance.
  • Strength training for beginners is a great place to start, here's our full guide.

11. How do you measure whether you're losing belly fat?

There are a number of ways to see if your body is changing in the way you're working towards but some aren't as reliable as others.

'Remember that scales don’t take into account muscle mass so the best way to check your progress is by taking pictures,' explains Belalij. 'Take them in the morning under the same lighting and compare your physique each week. If you check your belly in the mirror every day, chances are you won’t notice any differences, which could be disheartening.'If you do prefer to go by numbers, invest in a set of smart scales but only weigh yourself once a week.

Other options include using a tape measure to check your waist size and picking a favourite pair of jeans, trousers or a dress and gauging any differences in the way they fit. Callipers (fat measuring devices) are far less reliable and can be prone to human error.

A final note on the best way to lose belly fat

Okay, so we've given you the good stuff (the best stuff, really) when it comes to learning the best way to lose belly fat and belly fat exercises to add in to your routine. Basically everything you need to know about how to lose stomach fat.

The one takeaway we hope you leave with, though, is that for all of the ways to lose belly fat, the way you speak to and view yourself is the most important thing in all of this. Whether you do or do not want to lose stomach fat, you are still worthy of love and respect from yourself. If you feel that the only thing you can focus on is trying to lose fat fast or entering into any unhelpful and unhealthy habits, take a step back and reassess. Focus on small things like watching your stress, sleeping well or choosing nutrient-dense foods. Small, attainable goals add up to very big wins – don't lose sight of that.

*Women's Health Naked Survey 2018

Fasted cardio could cause you to gain fat and lose lean muscle, here's how .
Everyone's doing 'fed state' training.One of the most common beliefs on fasted cardio is that by exercising on an empty stomach, you’re more likely to burn fat. This is, theoretically, true. A meta-analysis of 273 people compared fasted cardio to ‘fed’ cardio and found that those who did fasted cardio burned more fat, but as mentioned in our fasted cardio guide, this is purely an acute effect. In other words, you may burn more fat during fasted cardio, but it won’t affect your body composition in the long run.

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