Belly fat gets an extra bad rap — and for good reason. In particular, the fat that accumulates around the organs of your midsection (technically called visceral fat) is linked with increased risk of both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
But that doesn’t mean you should drop everything and do nothing but crunches all day in an attempt to get rid of it. No matter how many abs workouts you do, body fat is reduced evenly throughout the body.
Despite most people’s fervent wishes, ‘spot reducing’ isn’t a thing, which means you’ll need to take the same balanced, holistic approach to losing belly fat you’d take take for general weight loss. Avoid these few common mistakes and you’ll help your body shed fat healthfully — and trim down your midsection in the process.
Did you know that keeping a food diary is one of the most effective ways to manage your weight?
Mistake 1: Doing Endless Crunches
We said it once and we’ll say it again: You cannot spot reduce fat on any part of the body. Your body loses fat as a whole.
Doing abs exercises day in and day out will help strengthen your core, sure, but it won’t ensure that you burn fat from that part of your body.
Fix it: While you can totally incorporate core exercises into your workout routine, well-balanced workouts that involve your entire body involve more muscles and better support fat loss.
Mistake 2: Getting Too Little Sleep
“Sleep is when our body repairs and rebuilds tissues,” And according to April 2013 research published in PNAS, insufficient sleep alone increases risk of obesity. Sacrificing sleep (even for the sake of a workout) impairs glucose metabolism, which can lead to higher blood sugar levels — a major contributor to belly fat.
Not to mention, lack of sleep also affects the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin, driving sugar and carb cravings, she says. In combination with that messed-up glucose metabolism, this creates a vicious cycle that feeds right into fat gain.
Fix it: Schneider recommends prioritizing seven to eight hours of quality sleep per night. (Sticking to a regular bedtime and limiting screen time in the hour for bed can help make that happen.)
Mistake 3: Eating ALL the Low-Fat Foods
Despite what older generations would have you believe, opting for the low-fat versions of foods like yogurts and salad dressings is not necessarily fat-loss friendly.
Low-fat foods usually make up for the flavor losses that go along with removing their fat by adding sugar. As a result, many of these foods are more processed and contain more craving-inducing additives (like sugar and sodium) than their fat-containing counterparts.
Plus, healthy fats actually support brain health and healthy hormone and cholesterol levels. They also satiate us, helping to curb hunger and cravings.
Fix it: Schneider recommends incorporating wholesome healthy fats — like avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, extra-virgin olive oil, fatty fish and egg yolks — into every meal.
Mistake 4: Ignoring Signs of Too Much Stress
Though stress can actually support fat loss in the right amounts at the right times (ex. in your HIIT workouts), it sabotages even the most consistent fat-loss efforts when uncontrolled.
One major player in stress and its impact on our waistlines: the stress hormone cortisol. Charged with prepping the body for mental and physical exertion (like exercise), cortisol raises our blood sugar so we have energy readily available.
However, if you sleep poorly, feel stressed often or over-exercise (or all three), cortisol can run rampant and have a number of negative impacts on our bodies and health. Chronically high cortisol levels can reduce our ability to build muscle and promote abdominal fat gain.
Fix it: To manage stress and cortisol, incorporate practices like meditation, yoga and journaling into your daily routine. Making sure you meet your daily needs of vitamin C, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium can also help balance the stress response.
Mistake 5: Slashing WAY Too Many Calories
Many people believe that cutting calories really low is the answer for shedding fat. When the body is starved of energy, though, it enters a ‘starvation state,’ in which it holds onto any energy it’s given in order to sustain itself. The end result: You make little (if any) fat-loss progress.
If you’re experiencing fatigue, dizziness, headaches, shakiness, irritability, and/or cravings, you’re eating too few calories. Making sure you aren’t falling short on calories or nutrients is important for proper body function. Having enough calories throughout each day will let the body know it doesn’t need to be in a starvation state by holding onto calories.
Fix it: Instead of focusing on slashing calories, plan to eat small meals that contain protein, complex carbs (like oats or sweet potatoes), healthy fats and vegetables every three to four hours. Eat a diet of whole foods and you’ll be much less likely to overeat.
Mistake 6: Relying on Belly Wraps or Fat-Loss Supplements
You knew this one was coming. There is not a single drug on the market today that is approved by the FDA to reduce belly fat. “There is no magic bullet.”
Though ‘fat-burner’ or ‘weight-loss’ supplements may promise to support your efforts, they typically help you drop (temporary) water weight, not real body fat. Same goes for belly wraps, which typically just increase how much you sweat and dehydrate you, says White.
Fix it: No product can replace exercising regularly (and including resistance training), eating balanced meals and drinking plenty of water. If you’re nailing the basics but still not losing stubborn belly fat, reach out to a nutrition professional who can help you dial in your diet.
Mistake 17: Not Eating Enough Protein
In addition to supporting muscle repair and growth, protein also helps curb hunger and cravings. So eating ample protein daily has a significant impact on your fat-loss progress.
Plus, protein plays an even more crucial role in maintaining metabolism and muscle mass after you lose that fat, according to February 2013 research published in The Journal of Nutrition.
Fix it: Active people aim for anywhere between one and two grams of protein per kilogram of goal body weight. (That’s up to about 135 grams of protein daily for someone with a goal weight of 150 pounds.) Get there by including protein — like poultry, fish, meat, eggs, legumes, and nuts — in every meal and snack.