Belly fat is more than just a superficial concern. It is also a significant risk factor for serious health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Not all fat is the same. Subcutaneous belly fat is the most visible type of fat, located just under the skin. Everyone has some belly fat, but large quantities of this subcutaneous fat can signal a weight problem.
Pills, surgeries, miracle cures, and herbal remedies will not safely remove belly fat. It is, however, possible to get rid of belly fat naturally with a healthy combination of diet and exercise.
Fast facts on belly fat:
- Belly fat tends to increase with age, particularly for women.
- Having a high body mass index (BMI) often correlates with more belly fat.
- Visceral belly fat is highly responsive to diet.
- Exercise is a key factor in eliminating belly fat.
Visceral fat — sometimes called "active" fat because of its active role in producing various hormones — is the harmful type of belly fat.
It is less visible than subcutaneous fat because it lies within the abdominal wall. It surrounds organs and releases hormones that can lead to diabetes, chronic inflammation, and other serious health problems.
Visceral fat is not visible, but a slowly expanding waistline is a good indication of visceral fat. As visceral fat grows, so too does the belly.
Some people find that visceral fat makes the stomach feel hard, while subcutaneous fat tends to feel soft and squishy.
A higher BMI can mean a greater risk for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndromes, such as diabetes. For people who have active lifestyles and healthy body weights, subcutaneous fat — even if the belly protrudes a little — is not dangerous.
Some research even suggests that surgery to remove subcutaneous fat will not improve health and may even be a risk factor for more visceral fat — particularly if surgery is not accompanied by healthful lifestyle changes.
Visceral fat, however, is very dangerous. It releases hormones that can cause diabetes and inflammation. Inflammation is a risk factor for a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In women, visceral fat may increase the likelihood of needing gallbladder surgery. Visceral fat is also linked to breast cancer.
Anyone can develop belly fat at any age, but some groups are at a greater risk of developing visceral fat. Those groups include:
- white men
- African-American women
- Asian Indian men and women
- people who are overweight or obese
- people who drink lots of sugary drinks
Eating fewer calories than the body burns — creating a caloric deficit — can help burn both visceral fat and excess subcutaneous fat. Some other strategies to reduce visceral fat include:
Eliminating sugary drinks
Some studies have linked sugary beverages, such as soda and sweetened tea and coffee, to the development of visceral fat. People should think about reducing the sugar in their coffee and cutting out soda altogether.
Reducing refined carbohydrate intake
Simple carbohydrates such as white bread, refined grains, and sugary foods are low in nutritional value but high in calories. They are also linked to the development of abdominal fat. Replace simple carbohydrates with complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain pasta and fruits and vegetables.
Eating more fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are a healthful alternative to simple carbohydrates. They also add fiber to the diet, which can help regulate blood sugar. Abdominal fat is a risk factor for insulin resistance and diabetes.
Consuming lean protein
Lean protein from nuts, legumes, and lean meats can help with feelings of fullness, reducing cravings for sugary snacks.
Controlling fat intake
It is not advisable to eliminate all fat, and people should not opt for packaged, fat free foods. Instead, try to choose healthful fats from whole foods such as lean meats, avocados, and other "real foods."
Reducing unhealthy fats
Trans fats and saturated fats are not good for the heart. They can cause weight gain and are closely linked with the development of visceral fat. Limit trans fat intake and keep saturated fat intake to less than 7 percent of the diet. No more than 20–30 percent of total caloric intake should come from fat.
Research has found that exercise plays a significant role in eliminating belly fat. For example, a 2005 study compared men who exercised with men who did not and found exercise to be a crucial factor.
However, it is a myth that it is possible to spot-reduce fat. Targeted exercises, such as crunches and situps, will not get rid of abdominal fat, though they can help strengthen abdominal muscles.
The following tips can help reduce belly fat naturally:
Become more active
Increasing activity levels can help burn more calories. People who sit at desks for long periods of time should take regular stretching breaks. Parking away from a destination can encourage more walking, burn more calories, and improve heart health.
Embrace cardiovascular exercise
Cardiovascular exercise — or cardio — gets the heart pumping. It also burns calories, helping to reduce belly fat, especially visceral fat. Start slowly, with walking or swimming. Then work up to more intense cardio, such as running or jumping rope.
Try high-intensity interval training
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) pairs intense exercise with less intense exercise to burn more calories. For instance, it might mean walking for 3 minutes, then running for 30 seconds. HIIT can burn more abdominal fat and is an ideal choice for those people who are not ready for more sustained, intense exercise.
Strength training can improve body weight, because muscles burn more calories than fat does. Strength training can also help prevent osteoporosis and other chronic illnesses. Commit to strength training exercises, such as lifting weights or yoga, at least three times per week.
Belly fat is a serious health problem, but a reversible one. No matter how much weight a person has gained or how poor their diet is, simply shedding a few pounds of belly fat can significantly reduce their risk of serious health problems.
Start slowly, incorporating positive health changes piece by piece and watch the pounds begin melting off.