How to lose belly fat – 18 things you need to know

24th January, 2023 • 14 min read

Are you wondering, ‘Why can’t I lose belly fat?’ We’ve got answers. Discover small changes to your diet, exercise routine and lifestyle that can work together to help shift the fat around your middle – at last!

Video: 5 ways to shift stubborn belly fat

Why belly fat is a health alert for women

“As well as being something that can affect your body image, stubborn belly (abdominal) fat is something we all need to take seriously as a health issue,” says Dr Ann Nainan, family doctor and Healthily expert. Why? Research shows it can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Women might need to take even more notice than men, too. “One study found that belly fat may even be worse for women’s heart health than men’s,” says Dr Ann. “And we know hormonal changes in the run-up to menopause and beyond can make increased belly fat more likely, and harder to shift.”

Internal belly fat is worse for you than your ‘muffin top’

There are 2 different types of belly fat: the type just beneath the skin, which you can see (subcutaneous fat) and the type around your internal organs (visceral fat).

“Although visible belly fat may be what’s bothering you, it’s actually the unseen visceral fat that’s more dangerous for your health,” says Dr Ann. “This is what’s associated with conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.”

So, you need to deal with both types of fat. And the tips here will help you do this, with a combination of exercise, diet, lifestyle and hormone management.

Do you need to lose belly fat?

Your waist measurement can often be a good indication of whether you have excess visceral fat around your middle – sometimes known as ‘central obesity’. So read more about how to measure waist size – and what it reveals about your health.

Your body shape can also give you clues. An ‘apple shape’ – when your body tends to look round – is common in people with central obesity. And if you’re apple-shaped, you may be at greater risk, even if you’re not overweight (meaning your body mass index (BMI) is less than 25). This is because the fat you do have is sitting close to your internal organs.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to check your waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), as well as your waist size. Read more about why women who are an apple shape need the WHR health check, and how it can help you decide if you need to lose belly fat.

How long does it take to lose belly fat?

“Belly fat can be hard to shift,” says Dr Ann. “It takes a bit of time and patience. And research shows you need to tackle it with a 360-degree approach. It’s not a case of quick fixes, such as cutting out fatty foods or doing loads of sit-ups.

“Some people might think an easier way to lose belly fat is to have a cosmetic procedure, such as liposuction – where fat is sucked out of problem areas – or fat-busting injections. However, this can be expensive, and a lot of people find they regain the weight – plus, it doesn’t remove dangerous visceral fat.

“You might also find your belly is flatter if you fast – but this is usually just temporary water loss. I’m afraid there are no shortcuts,” she adds.

The good news? We’ve been through all the latest research and put together 18 key things you need to know to help you lose both kinds of belly fat.

“We can’t show you how to lose belly fat overnight,” says Fiona Bugler, qualified personal trainer and Healthily editor. “But using a mix of these tips to change your diet, exercise, sleep, stress levels and hormone balance can work together to help reduce your belly fat – and the health risks.”

What exercise burns the most belly fat?

1. Exercise before breakfast

“People often wonder when is the best time to exercise to lose belly fat,” says Fiona. “And according to one small study, starting the day with a workout may help your body burn more fat – including belly fat.”

The study’s researchers found that exercising before breakfast – after not eating anything overnight – increased the body’s 24-hour fat burning (known as ‘fat oxidation’).

2. Start lifting some weights

“People sometimes ask if it should be cardio or weights first to lose belly fat ,” says Fiona. Well, one study found that healthy men over 40 who did 20 minutes of weight-lifting daily had less belly fat than men who spent the same amount of time doing aerobic exercise. (And combining both forms of exercise was even more effective – see point 5).

“If you don’t fancy lifting weights, try other kinds of resistance training,” says Fiona. “This could include bodyweight training such as press-ups, and exercise classes where you use a combination of your body and hand weights.

“You can also gain strength by power-walking up steep hills, or even lifting and carrying in day-to-day life – just watch your back, and don’t repeat the same movement over and over.”

3. Step up the aerobic exercise

“People often ask: does running burn belly fat?” says Fiona. “Or does cycling burn belly fat, or what exercise burns the most belly fat?

“The answer is that all vigorous aerobic activity will help burn fat. Both running and cycling are good for burning fat, if you do them for long enough and at high enough intensity.

“Most runners and cyclists are endurance athletes, so they do a higher volume of aerobic activity – which in itself will burn more calories, and therefore fat.”

Want to get started? Join a parkrun near you, to be part of a welcoming and inclusive running community, or check out bike races for beginners.

4. Try high-intensity interval training (HIIT)

“Rather than slogging on the treadmill for hours to shift your belly fat, try short bursts of intense exercise, followed by lower intensity or rest,” says Fiona.

  • research has shown overweight people with type 2 diabetes found HIIT helped them lose weight and abdominal weight
  • there is some evidence to suggest HIIT can reduce both external belly fat and visceral fat, even if you’re young and a normal weight or only slightly overweight

Doctors still don’t fully understand why HIIT seems to burn more belly fat. It may be due to increased fat-burning (oxidation) during and after exercise, and HIIT reducing your appetite.

See a personal trainer or an advisor at your gym for more information about HIIT. Or read more about interval training for runners.

5. Combine abdominal and aerobic exercise

“The key thing about exercise to reduce belly fat is that you need to combine different kinds of exercise and intensity (as well as having a healthy diet and lifestyle),” says Fiona. “Aerobic and resistance combined will give you the best results.”

  • in a study of 105 sedentary adults, doing 3 sessions a week of combined abdominal and aerobic exercises reduced belly fat over a 12-week period, without calorie restriction

“If you do aerobic exercise (running, swimming, dancing or tennis) but you don’t do abdominal work, or you’re all about the abdominals (Pilates or sit-ups) but don’t do aerobics – you should aim to mix the 2 instead,” says Fiona.

“Remember, Pilates won’t actually shift belly fat, but it will strengthen your core and help your stomach look flatter. And do longer aerobic activities – such as walking – alongside shorter, higher-intensity workouts.”

Watch this introduction to Pilates video or abs workout video .

Why changing up what you drink can help tackle belly fat

6. Enjoy a coffee or 3

According to a recent study based on data from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, women who drink 2 to 3 cups of coffee a day have lower total body fat and less abdominal fat than those who drink less.

“Try drinking 2 to 4 cups of caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee a day – without sugar, and with skim milk or no milk,” says Dr Ann.

7. Apple cider vinegar and cutting calories

You might see apple cider vinegar popping up if you search online for advice on losing belly fat.

“It’s not a miracle diet that stands up to scientific scrutiny,” says Dr Ann. “But there is some limited evidence from studies that apple cider vinegar might help with visceral fat in a small way – if you drink at least 1 tablespoon a day and also cut your calorie intake.”

8. Avoid a beer belly

Drinking too much alcohol can make you fat – particularly around your middle. A Portuguese study of 2,377 people found that drinking alcohol was associated with an increased risk of both general obesity and increased belly fat.

Want to quit the booze? Read about how to cut back on drinking.

9. Go easy on soft drinks (including fruit juice)

Soft drinks are a huge source of added sugar in our diets. They often have a high content of a sugar called fructose, which can lead to increased weight gain – including belly fat and visceral fat. Time to switch to sparkling water?

Diet tips to help shift belly fat

10. Eat more sprouts (and porridge)

Well, not just sprouts and porridge (and definitely not together). But eating foods like these may help you win your belly fat war, as they contain soluble fiber.

Fiber helps to regulate your blood sugar and makes you feel fuller for longer – so you’re less likely to overeat. And researchers have found that when combined with vigorous exercise, soluble fiber can reduce visceral fat.

In a 5-year study of 339 Hispanic Americans and 775 African Americans aged 18 to 81, for each 10g increase in soluble fiber, the rate of visceral fat accumulation was reduced by 3.7%.

As well as sprouts and porridge, soluble fiber is found in foods such as beans, broccoli, avocados, nuts, sweet potato, peas, figs and flax seeds.

11. Try adding probiotics

Researchers have found that certain strains of probiotic gut bacteria may help reduce belly fat:

  • a small study of 30 adults aged 27 to 69 showed that a type of lactobacillus can prevent abdominal obesity and suppress fat absorption
  • another small study of 20 overweight people found that drinking fermented milk containing a type of lactobacillus for 12 weeks resulted in a reduction in fat levels

Lactobacillus is found in foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and kefir, and is also in probiotic supplements.

12. Consider intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting – such as the 5:2 diet – is when you only eat at set times, then fast for a specific length of time. It’s a popular diet trend, with various reported benefits – including the fact that fasting encourages your body to burn fat.

How effective it is for you will depend on lots of factors, including how long you fast for and how strict you are. Bear in mind that if you fast for a long period, this might not be the best method for reducing belly fat.

13. Go easy on the carbs

Low-carbohydrate diets are also popular. And there’s some evidence that for those at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a lower-carb diet may help with belly fat.

In a small study of overweight/obese people, 2 groups were studied: one on a lower-carb diet, the other on a lower-fat diet. The researchers found reduced abdominal fat in those who followed the lower-carb option.

14. Avoid trans fats

Those ready meals and take-outs you fall back on when you’re too busy or tired to cook could be part of your belly-fat problem – especially if you’re an ‘apple’ shape.

This is because many of these products have a high content of trans fats (sometimes labeled ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ fats), which are associated with belly fat.

In a 6-year-study, monkeys were fed a set amount of either trans fats or monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil). The monkeys on the diet with trans fats were found to have deposited 30% more fat around their bellies, and also had a 7.2% increase in bodyweight – compared with a just 1.8% increase in the monounsaturated fats group.

Trans fats are found in many other processed foods, such as cookies, crackers, margarines or foods fried in hydrogenated oils – so try to avoid these when you can.

Lifestyle tips to cut belly fat – sleep, stress and cold therapy

15. Don’t stay up late working or worrying

Why? Researchers have found being stressed at night makes it more likely that fat cells will be laid down. This is thought to be because of a class of stress hormones called glucocorticoids.

These hormones are released according to a 24-hour (circadian) rhythm. But long-term (chronic) stress is thought to interfere with their cycle, and make it more likely that ‘precursor fat cells’ – cells that have the potential to be laid down as fat – are actually laid down as fat.

“The research has only been done in mice, not humans,” says Dr Ann. “But it makes sense to try to reduce your stress levels in general, and to focus on relaxation in the evenings (try journaling or meditation) as stress and obesity are often linked.”

16. Try cold water immersion

Cold-water swimming and ice baths have become a global health trend. And while the science is mixed, some studies show a link between cold therapy and body fat.

One review of 104 studies of different types of cold-water exposure activities found that they seemed to reduce or transform body fat tissue and reduce insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes). The authors say this may have a protective effect against obesity, as well as heart disease and diabetes.

However, they caution that some of the claimed benefits may not be caused by cold-water exposure – they could be due to other factors, such as an active lifestyle, being outdoors in nice surroundings, or being sociable.

“Cold water swimming might well be worth a try,” says Dr Ann. “But what we can’t tell you is how cold the water has to be, how long you have to be in it for, or how regularly you have to do it.”

17. Sort out your sleep

You might think your sleep has nothing to do with your waistline, but there are links.

A recent study of 12 healthy people by Mayo Clinic found that a lack of sufficient sleep led to a 9% increase in total abdominal fat and an 11% increase in abdominal visceral fat, compared with the control group. People in the sleep-restricted group ate about 300 more calories a day.

Another study measured sleep-length times and fat levels in around 1,800 people from minority groups over 5 years. It found that people under 40 who slept 5 hours or less had more subcutaneous and visceral fat and a higher BMI than people who slept 6 to 7 hours a night.

Under 40s who slept 8 hours or more a night also put on more fat and had a higher BMI than those who slept 6 to 7 hours. (Sleep levels didn’t have a big effect on fat deposits and BMI in the over 40s, however.)

Read our guide on how to sleep well.

Hormonal balance to lose belly fat

18. Can HRT help with ‘menobelly’?

“I often see menopausal and postmenopausal women who ask, “Why can’t I lose belly fat?”’ says Dr Ann. “And that even if they lose weight, they struggle to shift it.

“I explain that this can be due to changes in the way your body makes and stores fat because of lower levels of the hormone estrogen, plus changes in your metabolism.

“Belly fat is influenced by your diet, the amount of exercise you do, your family history and the amount of sleep you get. But there’s some evidence that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help prevent the accumulation of visceral belly fat, or slow this down while you’re taking it.

“However, the overall benefit is still small, compared with physical activity and nutrition. Talk to your doctor to find out whether it may help you.”

Find more menopause tips in our menopause guide, including what to eat and the best exercise for you.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.