How to Lose Belly Fat

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on May 21, 2024
14 min read

Surprise: Everyone has some belly fat, even people who have flat abs.

That's normal. Fat is an essential part of the human body. But it’s not all the same, and the amount and location of it in your body may affect your health. 

Subcutaneous belly fat is right under your skin. This is what may make your clothes feel tighter than they used to. It can make your belly soft and round.

visceral fat

Deep belly fat, or visceral fat, is deeper inside your belly. It builds up around your heartlungsliver, and other organs. Scientists call it "visceral adipose tissue." 

You need some visceral fat. It cushions your organs. 

“But it’s a very, very small amount, and it also takes a relatively small amount to cause disease as well,” says Lydia Alexander, MD, president of the Obesity Medicine Association and chief medical officer of Enara Health, a network of clinics that specializes in medical weight management and obesity treatment.

“Having even a little bit of fat around the heart, for example, can be hugely detrimental,” she says. 

Fat around your organs can make you more likely to get conditions such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and certain cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer.

To start losing deep belly fat, you have to lose weight. 

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that you can target the area of the body where you want to lose fat,” says Leanna Ross, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine and a researcher at Duke’s Molecular Physiology Institute. “When we’re inducing weight loss through physical activity and diet, it’s going to come from the whole body.”

The way to do that, she says, will probably come as no surprise: You need to burn more calories than you take in by exercising more and eating less. You can get even more bang for your buck when you manage sleep and stress as part of your belly fat-burning plan. 

Exercise for belly fat: Crunches, situps, and other ab workouts will strengthen your abdominal muscles. But you won’t start to see those “six-pack abs” until weight loss kicks in. 

So if you want to know what burns the most belly fat, the answer is the lifestyle changes that lead to the most weight loss.

For weight loss to happen, Ross says, “the target goal is the amount of exercise, as in minutes per week. Within that, crunches and core strengthening activities are absolutely crucial for us to do for our health, strength, and balance, but a crunch is not going to burn the same number of calories as a brisk walk or body weight resistance exercises.”

For basic maintenance of your health, experts recommend getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 days a week. That’s 150 minutes a week, which you can break up into 30 minutes per day or some other plan that works for your schedule. 

But to lose weight and burn fat, Ross says, you’d need a lot more time than that.

“To achieve clinically meaningful weight loss – at least 5% of your starting body weight – with exercise alone, you would need to aim for at least 225 minutes [3.75 hours] and sometimes up to 420 minutes [7 hours] of weekly exercise,” Ross says. “The total amount of exercise and the intensity, more than the mode of exercise, seem to be the drivers of weight loss.” 

Low-intensity workouts, like gentle yoga or an easy stroll, probably won’t get you to your goal. You need moderate to vigorous movement. What’s considered moderate or vigorous depends on your fitness level to begin with. 

Take the talk test while you exercise to see how hard you need to work out to achieve your goals. 

At a low intensity, you’ll be able to talk normally with no change to your breathing. At moderate intensity, you can still talk, but you’ll be breathing more heavily or faster. With vigorous activity, it should be hard to talk. 

“For some people, a brisk walk could put them towards the high end of moderate or the low end of vigorous, but for others, that might be pretty low intensity,” Ross says. “It’s relative to everyone’s fitness level.”

As you become more fit, your workouts will get easier. So you’ll need to keep stepping them up if more weight loss is your goal. 

If fat-burning is your goal, you’ll want to do things that speed up your breathing (and your heart rate will go up with it). You can do any mix of activities that achieves that. Do a mix of cardio – like jogging, dancing, or tennis – along with strength training, like pushups and weightlifting.

Beyond weight loss, the combination of cardio and resistance training has “extremely helpful benefits,” Ross says. Those perks include mental skills, metabolic health, and being able to do everyday activities as you age.

If you aren’t active now, it's a good idea to check with your health care provider before starting a new fitness program. You may need to start with shorter workouts and gradually make them longer and more intense.

As you can tell from the time commitments that Ross mentioned, relying on exercise alone isn’t a practical way to lose weight or shed belly fat. So you’ll also want to look at what you’re eating and drinking.

Diet for belly fat: There are no foods that burn belly fat, and there is no magic diet for belly fat. So forget what you’ve heard about apple cider vinegar or protein shakes. But when you lose weight on any diet, belly fat usually goes first.

There are many approaches to weight loss. There’s no one-size-fits-all method that everyone finds effective or lasting. In general, you’ll need to get into an energy deficit, eating and drinking fewer calories than you burn in order to lose weight, and then adjust for long-term weight maintenance. Your doctor or a nutritionist can help you do this safely. Some people may find that they benefit from medication or weight loss surgery along with lifestyle strategies. 

When it comes to nutrition and belly fat, getting enough fiber may help. Higher-fiber foods can help keep you feeling full longer than other foods, which may help prevent overeating. Unhealthy diets – the type that can add to belly fat – tend to be low in fiber. 

Recent research drills down on just what type of fiber – soluble or insoluble – might be best for that.

 A paper published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition analyzed data from 62 randomized control trials that compared the effects of added fiber on weight control. The results showed that without changing much else, if you add 7 grams of viscous fiber – a type of soluble fiber – to your daily diet, you could see a little weight loss (0.7 pounds) and a little shrinking of your waistline (0.25 inches) after about 10 weeks. 

Of course, you’d see greater benefits if you added soluble fiber to a diet and exercise plan. 

“Even if you kept everything else the same but switched to higher-fiber carbohydrates, you might be able to better maintain your weight over time,” says Kristen Hairston, MD, a professor of endocrinology at Atrium Health Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina. For instance, you could choose whole-grain bread instead of white, brown rice instead of white, and sweet potatoes instead of white. You get the idea. 

Soluble fiber slows digestion and can help lower cholesterol and blood sugar. You find it in oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley, and psyllium.

Experts recommend getting 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories. That’s 28 grams of fiber per day, if you get 2,000 calories daily. Food sources of fiber are usually recommended over supplements. Fiber comes from plant foods. You can check the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods to see how much fiber you’ll get per serving.

Many people ask if drinking water helps you lose belly fat. Well, not belly fat in particular, but maybe weight loss overall, which, as you now know, includes belly fat. There are three reasons why: 

  • Hydration makes you more able to do exercise. You simply cannot ramp up to the exercise intensity required to burn fat if you are dehydrated.
  • You need water to burn fat. Dehydration interferes with the body's ability to break down fat and turn it into fuel.
  • Water is a zero-calorie substitute for high-calorie beverages. 

Sleep for belly fat: Getting enough shut-eye helps your health in many ways, and missing out on it can affect your fat. 

“Not getting the appropriate amount of sleep, which is 7 to 8 hours a night, is associated with greater visceral fat mass,” says Sherrie Khadanga, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Vermont Medical Center in South Burlington. “If you lack sufficient sleep, you have a much higher risk of having visceral abdominal fat, compared to those who have normal sleep patterns.” 

In a study of 5,151 men and women ages 18 to 59, those who got more sleep – up to 8 hours a night – had less visceral belly fat. But more than 8 hours a night didn’t bring more benefits. 

Another small study looked at why too little sleep might expand your waistline. Researchers observed 12 healthy adults who didn’t have obesity. They stayed in a clinic for 3 weeks. During that time, they could eat what they wanted and move around the clinic as they pleased, but their sleep was limited. When they were only allowed to sleep for 4 hours a night, compared to 9 hours, they ate more (specifically, fat and protein) and they didn’t move around more than when they had gotten more sleep. That added up to weight gain during the sleep deprivation part of the study. And while their overall body fat percentage didn’t rise during sleep deprivation, they did have measurable increases in both subcutaneous and visceral belly fat.

Experts don’t agree about why sleep deprivation has this effect. One theory is that lack of sleep promotes circulation of appetite-stimulating hormones throughout the body. Another is that poor sleep activates a brain region that triggers food cravings and rewards eating junk food. 

The bottom line is that when you get enough sleep, you may have better control over your weight and appetite.

Manage stress:  Everyone has stress. How you handle it matters. 

Ongoing, unchecked stress can affect your whole body, including your waistline. Stress causes the body to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol helps the body do what it needs to in order to survive a stressful situation. The cortisol that comes from a stressful day here and there isn’t going to hurt you. But constant stress with no outlet can lead to excess levels of cortisol in the body.

“The cortisol in and of itself contributes to weight,” Khadanga says. It can stimulate your appetite and make you crave sweet, fatty and salty foods. This may explain why stress prompts many people to reach for comfort foods rather than healthier choices.

For your health, your routine should include stress-relieving activities such as relaxing or having fun with friends and family, exercise, and hobbies that you enjoy. If you still have too much stress, talk to your doctor about counseling and/or medication.

Surgical and medical treatment for weight loss gets at deep belly fat, too. 

Bariatric surgery is known to improve metabolic syndrome and all these other diseases to which obesity can contribute because it both decreases weight and visceral adiposity [fat],” Alexander says.

Injectable weight loss medications, like semaglutide (Wegovy) and tirzepatide (Zepbound), may cut down on deep belly fat, too. They cause all-over weight loss, which doesn’t discriminate against one kind of fat over another. These drugs are newer than bariatric surgery, so less is known about them. But so far, research shows that they measurably reduce the thickness of visceral fat. It will take time to build up the amount of evidence on these drugs that already exists in support of surgery. 

“We don’t have those super-long outcomes studies that you have for bariatric surgery to prove every point,” Alexander says. “But there are studies being done to look at that.” 

A seemingly quicker fix, liposuction doesn't seem to offer the same benefits. In fact, it may backfire.

The cosmetic procedure removes subcutaneous fat from specific places like the stomach, thighs, or arms. But it doesn't change things such as blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol, as bariatric surgery does, Alexander says. 

“In people who regain the weight, it can go in places where it doesn’t belong because you removed it from places – subcutaneous places – where it did belong,” she says. “If you start gaining weight again, the fat can get into your visceral tissue. So I’d say liposuction is a net neutral to net negative” in that context.

Remember that belly fat is OK – even necessary – as long as you don’t have too much of it. 

The problem with having too much visceral fat, Hairston says, is that “it doesn’t just sit there. It’s an active part of your body and makes a lot of toxic substances that promote inflammation and insulin resistance.” 

Visceral fat can cause inflammation in the organs that it rests on. For example, “It can wrap around your liver, and that contributes to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease,” Khadanga says.

Ongoing inflammation in the body is a risk factor for most of the chronic diseases that become more common with age: high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s disease. As for insulin resistance, that leads to type 2 diabetes, which in turn makes strokes, heart disease, kidney disease, and other conditions more likely.

The first place that your body stores fat is between your skin and your muscles, as subcutaneous fat. Exactly where under the skin that fat goes – whether to your hips and thighs, for example, or to your midsection – depends on your body type, which has a lot to do with your genes. 

Genes could in part explain, for example, why some people are otherwise skinny but have a big belly. 

In a study in Nature Genetics that analyzed the genes of more than 476,000 people, researchers found 24 genes that determine where a person might store fat. Some variants of those genes would help send fat straight to your hips and thighs, creating a more pear-shaped physique. Other variants would direct fat to the midsection, making an apple shape. 

Once those subcutaneous fat compartments fill up, wherever they may be, fat will bury itself deeper in the body – in the midsection, around your organs. How much fat a body can first store at the safer subcutaneous level varies from person to person, too. 

“Different people are equipped to store different amounts of fat subcutaneously. When you run out of those stores, it’s got to go somewhere and it starts to get stored in places where it definitely doesn’t belong,” Alexander says. 

Some people’s genes make them more likely to store fat deep in the belly rather than in safer subcutaneous places. 

For example, many “Indian men do not have the same amount of subcutaneous fat stores as Caucasian people,” Alexander says. “They can fill up their subcutaneous stores and then end up having a lot more visceral fat than a Caucasian with the same BMI or the same percentage of body fat.” In such cases, an MRI may show that a thin-looking person has fat around their heart and liver and throughout their belly.

Having a "pear shape" – bigger hips and thighs versus a bigger middle – is considered healthier than an "apple shape," which describes a wider waistline. “If you have more abdominal fat, it’s probably an indicator that you have more visceral fat," Hairston says.

The only way to know for sure how much of your fat composition is subcutaneous versus visceral is through an MRI. But the size of your waist will give you an idea of whether you have an unhealthy amount of visceral fat. For your health's sake, you want your waist size to be less than 35 inches if you're a woman and less than 40 inches if you're a man.

Here’s how to check: While standing, wrap a measuring tape around your waist – that’s just above your bellybutton. Make sure the tape is level all the way around before you check the number.

waist circumference infographic

Even if you're thin, you can still have too much visceral fat. 

“The popular term for that is ‘skinny fat,’ ” Alexander says. That is, you can look thin and see a healthy number on the bathroom scale and on that measuring tape around your waist, but unseen visceral fat has gathered deep in your belly.

Signs may show up in other ways.

“You’ll probably see it in your biomarkers where, for example, your cholesterol might be higher and you’re just like, ‘Why is this?’ ” Alexander says. 

So-called skinny fat is partially genetic, but genes don’t control everything when it comes to fat distribution. Skinny fat, Alexander says, can happen if you eat a particularly poor diet or in people who are not typically active.

Visceral fat likes inactivity. In one study, thin people who watched their diets but didn't exercise were more likely to have too much visceral fat.

The key is to be active, at any size.

You can’t lose belly fat, or any other kind of fat, overnight. 

“What you’re aiming for is just slow, steady weight loss,” Khadanga says. “This comes down to staying active and being cautious about your diet.”

The pace of weight loss depends on several things. 

When you cut down on calories you take in from food and beverages, and increase your daily calorie burn, you’ll lose weight relatively quickly at first. But over time, your body will adjust by slowing down your metabolism, and the weight loss will slow down. To keep losing weight, you’ll have to keep cutting calories and or ramping up your exercise. 

Your age matters, too. Metabolism slows down as you age, which makes it harder to take off weight. 

For women, weight loss tends to be a little slower-going than it is for men. This can be because men tend to have more lean muscle, which spurs along the burning of calories. Hormone changes in menopause can add to the challenges – along with those that come with aging.

“There is a change in body composition, where fat that was once stored in the hips starts storing around your belly,” Alexander says. “When hormones go away, it changes your body composition and slows down your metabolism, so it’s going to be harder to lose.” 

But it’s not a lost cause, she says. Strength training becomes all the more important. It can help you keep muscle mass, which promotes weight loss. 

“Strength and aerobic training, dietary choices, sleep, and stress [management] are all ways to keep weight off the belly,” Alexander says. And because the drastic plunge in estrogen is at least partially to blame for muscle loss and weight gain and redistribution in menopause, “There’s also hormone replacement therapy, which does improve body composition and have other health benefits as well,” she says. Menopause hormone replacement therapy has risks and benefits that you and your doctor would need to consider.

Not all fat is created equal. Where it is on your body can say a lot about how bad it may be for your health. But all fat is treated equally when you take proven steps to burn it off. When fat cells start to go – as challenging as it may be for you to get rid of them – they’ll melt off your hips and thighs and off of those hidden spaces deep inside.