The numbers on the scale have fluctuated for so many people during quarantine, and that’s fine. It’s only natural: We’ve all gone through so many changes in the last two years, and with constant change, our bodies change as well. Furthermore, the American Institute of Stress confirms a link between elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol (which have been abundant for many people recently) and weight gain, specifically an increase in belly fat.
Belly fat is a common cause of concern in terms of health. “We know that belly fat increases your risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and even colorectal cancer, regardless of your weight,” says Yasmin Akhunji, MD, a telehealth internist and thyroid specialist at Paloma Health. Even if you’re a young person, belly fat is a risk factor for “metabolic syndrome,” which includes conditions like high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol, she adds (and if you’re having trouble managing your weight or metabolism, have your doctor check your thyroid hormone levels to make sure they’re healthy).
In some cases, women may find it even more challenging to lose belly fat. To begin with, according to the Cleveland Clinic, women typically have a higher percentage of body fat than men. Furthermore, it’s easy to gain belly fat, particularly during menopause, when hormone levels drop, contributing to a slower metabolism. Small changes like incorporating more whole foods into each meal or using a meal prep tool to plan your meals ahead of time can help you lose belly fat. Then there are the more significant picture habits that may influence your eating, such as how much alcohol you drink and how well you handle stress.
Continue reading for more information on how to lose belly fat while maintaining a healthy mindset.
1. Make sure you’re getting enough protein, fibre, and good fats in your diet.
The best way to lose belly fat is to avoid processed foods as much as possible, especially refined carbohydrates and sugars. To be clear, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t indulge in your favourite foods (cough, pizza), but a study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that cutting carbs rather than fat leads to weight loss. With fewer carbs in your diet, you’ll want to eat more protein, whole grains, and healthy fats.
It would be best if you also increase your fibre intake. “It’s especially important for weight management, chronic disease risk, and GI regularity,” says WW’s Head of Nutrition & Wellness, Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN. “Fiber, particularly prebiotic fibre,” she continues, “can help optimise the biological environment in your GI tract over time by providing fuel for your body’s own probiotics to survive and thrive.”
Start with a plant-based diet that includes whole grains (which a newly published study associates with less of an increase in waist circumference than eating a diet filled with refined grains like white bread and pasta). For probiotics, London suggests eating a lot of fermented foods like miso, tempeh, kimchi, and artichokes, asparagus, and bananas, as well as prebiotic fibre from artichokes, asparagus, and bananas. Protein-rich healthy fats, such as seafood, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas, will keep you satisfied.
2. Cut back on alcohol.
It might be worth revisiting your drink rotation if you have a few drinks every day at or after mealtime. According to Dr Akhunji, drinking too much alcohol is linked to belly fat. “This was seen by simply adding one more alcoholic beverage to one’s daily routine,” she says.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a drink to commemorate a special occasion or that a glass of wine with dinner isn’t appropriate. When it comes to losing belly fat, studies have shown that quantity matters, and it’s best to limit yourself to two drinks whenever you’re drinking wine, cocktails, or any other alcoholic beverage.
3. Eat more frequently.
London recommends eating every three to four hours to keep your metabolism going (that means no skipping meals, especially breakfast!). Make sure you eat at regular intervals, she advises. And the snacks, in particular, should be high in protein and fibre — it’s time to break out the nuts and seeds — to keep you satisfied in between meals.
Although there is some debate over whether eating smaller, more frequent meals helps people lose weight or not, London insists that consistency is vital. It will keep you on track and prevent you from overeating in the evening if you’ve skipped lunch, for example.
4. Drink tons of water.
It is critical to maintaining adequate hydration for your health at all times. “While there is no direct link between water and weight loss, staying properly hydrated keeps you alert, energised, and ensures that everything in your body runs smoothly — from temperature to digestion and more,” London says.
Because everyone’s body and weight are different, there is no one-size-fits-all “hydration goal.” London recommends that most people drink nine to twelve eight-ounce cups of mostly water (coffee and tea are included) per day. Add two to three cups of water if you’re exercising. Eating more water-rich fruits and vegetables will help you stay hydrated as well.
5. Plan your meals.
Meal preparation serves a purpose other than keeping you organised. It helps you stay on track by ensuring that you eat meals that nourish you and provide the macronutrients you require. It’s okay if you don’t want to eat the same thing every day or give up spontaneity when it comes to eating. “Decide on a few meals that you know you can prepare even if you’re tired, stressed, or completely exhausted,” London advises. And make sure you have the ingredients for those dishes in your pantry and refrigerator so you can stick to your plan.
If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t feel obligated to follow a strict meal and snack schedule. You don’t have to eat dessert if you don’t want to! Avoid hidden sugar sources such as pre-made smoothies and other sugary beverages, as well as some pasta sauces and dressings. According to London, this frees up more space for a proper dessert.
6. Practice mindful eating.
When you’re meal prepping, keep the same thoughtful approach in mind when you’re eating. According to Dr Akhunji, it can help with stress and stress eating. Even though the goal of mindful eating is not to lose weight or trim the fat, a 2017 study found that it is a healthier way to enjoy your meals and may be linked to maintaining a healthy weight. This is because when you practise mindful eating, you slow down, listen to your hunger cues, and make more deliberate food choices.
Dr Akhunji recommends taking a few deep breaths before each snack or meal, eating slowly and without distractions, and paying attention to how your body feels as you eat. Making this a habit may not have proven belly fat loss benefits, but it is beneficial to your digestion and mental health.
7. Establish a regular exercise and sleep schedule.
It’s not just about what you eat. Working out is, as expected, a big part of losing belly fat. However, ab exercises aren’t the only way to lose belly fat. Finding your niche in the fitness world, even if you’re not doing the same routine every time — but doing it every day — is best, just like eating. “A combination of cardiovascular and strength training is essential to include in your repertoire — both for the benefits of physical activity and to help regulate your ability to fall and stay asleep,” London says.
London adds that sleep is also more important than you might think for weight loss and lowering your risk of heart disease. “Changes in your sleep patterns can be linked to hormonal shifts,” she says, adding that gradually increasing your activity level through a mix of strength training and cardio can help you both build lean body mass, which will help you burn more energy at rest, and improve your sleep quality. You’ll be able to get your much-needed seven to nine hours of sleep each night this way.
8. Deal with stress, which can lead to stress eating and other health problems.
It’s no secret that stress eating exists, but keeping your stress levels low is crucial for weight management success. Stress hormones like cortisol, as previously mentioned, may play a role in belly fat accumulation. Sleep disturbances, weight gain, muscle weakness, brain fog, mood swings, anxiety, and fatigue are all symptoms of chronically elevated cortisol, according to Dr Akhunji.
According to Dr Akhunji, all of the above can help you balance your cortisol levels and keep your thyroid hormones in check. Eating a well-balanced diet, exercising and sleeping regularly, and committing to self-care practises (meditation! journaling! daily walks!) are crucial components.