Belly fat is typically regarded as an unsightly inconvenience, but extra fat around the midsection poses greater risks than simply interfering with the fit of your clothes. Excess visceral fat in the abdominal region is the most dangerous type of fat you can carry on your body.
As opposed to subcutaneous fat, which is located directly under the skin, visceral fat surrounds the internal organs, and can increase the risk of serious health issues such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.
Carrying extra belly fat is worse than being generally overweight. Someone who carries 50 extra pounds of subcutaneous fat distributed around the body experiences a lower risk than someone who carries 25 extra pounds of visceral belly fat. Fortunately, visceral fat in your abdominal region can be effectively reduced by making a series of healthy lifestyle changes.
How belly fat affects your health
Visceral belly fat is the most dangerous type of fat on the body and comes with many serious health risks. Even people with a normal body weight are at risk of health complications if they have excess belly fat. Belly fat has been linked to hypertension, dementia, sleep apnea, some cancers, and other health problems.
Visceral fat lies below the abdominal muscles and deep in the abdominal cavity, surrounding the organs. Visceral fat is more threatening than the fat directly under the skin due to the way it triggers inflammation and compromises the health and function of major organs, including the liver, pancreas, and kidneys.
How belly fat accumulates
Increased belly fat is commonly caused by lack of physical activity and poor nutrition. Evidence reveals that people who sit down to watch more than three hours of television per day have twice the amount of belly fat than those who watch less than one hour per day. A sedentary lifestyle is also shown to cause regain of belly fat even after losing weight.
Those who consume high amounts of sugary foods and refined carbs tend to be at a higher risk of excess belly fat due to the way these foods cause an imbalance in hormones like insulin and cortisol. These hormonal imbalances increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other serious medical conditions.
Low protein intake, low fiber intake, menopause, bad gut bacteria, and chronic stress are other factors that can lead to extra belly fat.
Can belly fat be targeted?
Belly fat that you can see and pinch with your fingers is subcutaneous fat, which can be reduced with regular exercise, good nutrition, and loss of total body fat. Spot-reduction exercises like ab crunches and sit-ups are mainly ineffective at reducing both subcutaneous fat and visceral belly fat.
Compared to subcutaneous belly fat, visceral belly fat is much easier to target since fat reduction can be achieved with more factors than just diet and exercise. Getting more sleep, reducing stress, and eating certain foods can help you lose visceral belly fat and reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other related medical conditions.
The following 10 evidence-based approaches can help you lose visceral belly fat and improve your overall health and longevity.
1. Move it to lose it
Resistance training is a great way to build muscle and increase your metabolism for long-term weight management, but cardio exercise is the key to getting rid of stubborn belly fat. Studies show that aerobic exercise can help you lose visceral belly fat without even making changes to your diet.
Focus on exercises and activities that speed up your heart rate, such as swimming, cycling, and running. Jogging about 12 miles per week is shown to effectively reduce abdominal fat. If you don’t enjoy running, start walking at a brisk pace to reap many of the same health benefits.
2. Enjoy tea time
Drinking green tea can enhance the results of physical activity and burn off belly fat. Antioxidants in green tea can boost your metabolism and increase the body’s production of a hormone that helps you break down fat. Drink two or three cups of green tea per day to help reduce excess belly fat. If you’re finding that green tea is an acquired taste, flavor your tea with natural honey, Stevia, lemon, or grapefruit, or take green tea extract in pill form.
3. Lower your stress levels
Managing stress can reduce your body’s production of a stress hormone called cortisol, which contributes to inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and abdominal fat gain. Stress is a natural response to situations that pose a threat to your well-being and livelihood, such as loss of employment. Experiencing stress every now and then is normal, but chronic stress increases your body’s cortisol production, which in turn triggers weight gain.
Research shows that postmenopausal women who engage in yoga for 16 weeks can experience a significant decrease in visceral fat. Other stress-relieving activities can have a similar effect — especially meditation, which is shown to promote weight loss on top of reducing stress.
4. Increase your protein intake
Protein decreases appetite and helps increase metabolism. Insulin resistance increases with age regardless of weight, which makes you more susceptible to storing fat. Increasing protein intake can improve insulin resistance and help your body stave off weight gain while burning away belly fat.
Start consuming higher amounts of protein-rich foods such as eggs, fish, and beans. Stick to lean proteins and plant-based proteins for better health. Green smoothies with protein powder are a delicious, low-calorie way to boost your protein intake.
5. Eat more healthy fats
Yes, you read that right. Our bodies need fat to live — they just need the right fats. The typical American diet includes too much saturated fat and not enough unsaturated fat. Good fats include fish, nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil, and avocados.
Avoid sugary foods and drinks, since high sugar intake can overload your liver and prevent it from effectively metabolizing all the fructose — which then gets turned into fat. Replace sugary foods with whole fruit, since the natural fructose in fruit is offset by fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients that boost your overall health.
6. Sleep it off
Sleep is essential to good overall health and weight management. People who suffer from sleep deprivation tend to gain more weight, including visceral belly fat. In addition to reducing belly fat, getting between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night can reduce stress and improve mood, cognition, and heart health. Getting enough sleep is a vital component of a healthy weight-loss program.
If you’re experiencing sleep disturbances due to obstructive sleep apnea, seek treatment for your condition immediately, since sleep apnea is linked to an increase in visceral belly fat. Natural ways to improve sleep apnea include exercising regularly, quitting smoking, and reducing use of alcohol and sedatives.
7. Cut back on carbs
Reducing carb intake can improve your overall metabolic health and help you lose visceral belly fat. Instead of following a strict low-carb diet, try replacing refined carbs like pasta, white bread, and pastries with unprocessed complex carbs like spaghetti squash, beans, and vegetables. Refined carbs will spike the body’s insulin level and increase the risk of inflammation and belly fat gain.
8. Eat higher amounts of fiber
High-fiber foods can help you feel full so you eat less and consume fewer calories. Soluble fiber absorbs water and forms a gel-like substance that slows down the passing of food through the digestive system. A study conducted on abdominal fat gain found that for every extra 10 grams of soluble fiber consumed, belly fat decreased by 3.7% within a 5-year period.
Foods that are high in soluble fiber include black beans, avocados, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, flaxseed, kidney beans, and broccoli. Work with your weight-loss doctor on developing a personalized nutrition plan that includes foods high in fiber to accelerate belly fat loss.
9. Track the foods you’re eating
Tracking the foods you eat helps you stay in line with good nutrition, since you’ll have a clear view of what and how much you’re eating throughout the day. A food journal or app can help you stay conscious of the nutrition choices you’re making and the substances you’re putting into your body. Sometimes it can be easy to lose track of the snacks you eat and a bite here and there of sweets — all of which may be contributing to increased belly fat.
Start the habit of keeping a food journal, and write down everything single thing you eat, drink, and put into your body — including medications and supplements. A food journal can also provide your doctor with insight into whether your nutrition habits are interfering with weight loss.
10. Cut back on alcohol intake
Reduce alcohol use, or consider eliminating alcohol completely from your diet until after you’ve achieved and maintained a healthier weight. Drinking on a moderate or heavy basis can make you gain belly fat and interfere with your weight-loss efforts. Heavy alcohol consumption is linked to a significantly heightened risk of excess belly fat, and is defined as 15 drinks or more per week for men, and 8 drinks or more per week for women.
Need help achieving your weight-loss and wellness goals? Garcia Weight Loss offers personalized weight-loss programs designed to help you look and feel your best. Contact us today for your no-cost consultation!
Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on October 10, 2018
This post was originally published in May, 2018, and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.