If you want to know how to lose belly fat then listen up: cutting out carbs and forcing your body through endless HIIT workouts aren't the answer for shifting lbs from your midriff. In fact, there's no one formula to spot reduce a wobbly waist because several factors affect how to lose belly fat: mental well being, cortisol levels, hormones, nutrition, the intensity of your workouts all play a part.
So where on earth do you start? Below top trainer and WH PT Lee Mullins share his best weight loss tips and advice on how to lose belly fat.
To understand how to lose belly fat, first it’s important to understand the different forms fat under your skin– because yes, there’s more to it than just needing to ‘get rid of’ fat.
‘There are two types,’ says Lee, ‘Subcutaneous fat, which has implications on health but isn’t the high-risk fat. Then there’s visceral fat, which surrounds your organs, and if that gets out of hand that can lead to much more serious diseases.’
According to the Mayo Clinic, serious diseases that stem from visceral fat range from breathing problems, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So it’s extremely important to learn how to lose belly fat for better long-term health.
‘Belly fat specifically is heavily linked to stress and stress management and if that’s something you experience over a long period of time, there’s research which links that to an increased risk of heart disease’ says Lee.
‘Body fat in all areas has health implications, but around the stomach has stronger links to cardiovascular disease.’
It’s long been thought that stress hormone cortisol is a major contributing factor for women who store fat around their middle. Researchers at Yale University found that women who experienced significant levels of stress, and were otherwise ‘slim’, were more likely to have belly fat.
They were also much more at risk of developing diabetes or heart disease.
‘The first thing I would look at is finding what your biggest stressor is in life and fixing that’ advises Lee. ‘We’re never going to completely avoid stress, so we need to become good at managing it.’
Lee says that there’s a ‘hierarchy’ of three factors he looks at when helping someone to reduce their stress levels.
‘If poor sleep is an issue then that’s the first thing. It’s all about quality over quantity – you could be getting eight broken hours of sleep or five hours of deep, quality sleep, but the latter is much healthier for you.
‘Sleep can have an impact on just about everything in the body, from the food you crave to your ability to recover from workouts.
‘If your sleep’s good, then next address your nutrition to note whether you’re regularly eating commonly stressful foods – processed foods, too much wheat, sugar – as well as whether dairy or gluten are a stress for the body.
‘Lastly, if your nutrition is on point but you still have excess tummy fat, then you need to look at your training. There’s a real craze for high-intensity workouts and really pushing yourself at the moment, but training is a stress on the body, and if you’re not giving it the tools to manage that stress and recover from it, then it can lead things like excess belly fat.
‘I’ve seen people who have eased off the intensity, and that tends to have a positive effect on stress management, hormone regulation, appetite et cetera.
‘So that’s my hierarchy to attack stress: sleep, nutrition and training.’
A lack of sleep can really throw your hormones out of whack and increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, so sleeping through the night is key in learning how to lose belly fat.
‘The best tip I can give isn't new, but do stop looking at your phone for two hours before you go to bed’ Lee advises. ‘If you do have to do it because of work, for example, then put your phone into night mode to dim the blue light emission form your phone.
‘More and more of our sleep issues are related to constant exposure to blue light from our laptops, tablets and phones, so two hours before you go to bed put your phone away so you’re not exposed.
‘Eye exposure to blue light it shuts off the production of melatonin, our body’s natural sleep hormone, so we find it harder to fall asleep because we’re still wired from the day.
‘A key thing I suggest for controlling sleep is breathing properly. It sounds a bit zen and funky, but in all honesty, the majority of people don’t breathe properly. Short, chest breathing is what the majority of people do, but deep, diaphragmatic breathing is key to relaxation and therefore good quality sleep.
‘If you look at a baby breathing, you’ll see their tummies stick out when they breathe – that’s diaphragmatic breathing.’
Diaphragmatic breathing is the key to getting ourselves into a relaxed state before bed.
‘Your nervous system has two main states: parasympathetic, which is a calm, restorative state, or sympathetic, also known as ‘fight or flight’. Years ago we were mostly in the parasympathetic state, aside from when we were hunting or being hunted.
‘But now most of us are in the sympathetic state due to modern lifestyles; giving the body stimulants, constantly being on our phones, running from meeting to meeting and being on our daily commute.
‘There are lots of stressful situations we put ourselves in on a day-to-day basis that we can’t avoid. But what we can do is control the way we breathe. It’s a really under-utilised tool but it’s cheaper than therapy.’
‘Do it for a couple of minutes in bed and you’ll actually be able to wind down and fall asleep more easily. But it’s a skill, so it requires a commitment to practice it, as with anything. Think of it a bit like dating – the first time you do it it’s terrible, it’s uncomfortable, nobody knows what they’re doing, but the more dates you go on the better it gets.
‘It’s the same with diaphragmatic breathing, it’s going to feel uncomfortable, but the more you do it the easier it’s going to get.
‘Breathing is the one thing we’re going to do more in our lives than anything else, so it’s important to get it right.
When they say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, they’re not having you on. As well as setting you up for the day and getting that metabolism going, it’s also an important rule to bear in mind when thinking about how to lose belly fat.
‘I strongly believe that if you get breakfast right you win the day; it sets you up’ says Lee. Most people perform better on a higher fat, higher protein breakfast, with maybe a few carbohydrates in the form of berries or an apple.’
‘In our brains there are certain neurotransmitters that control emotions and feelings. After you’ve had some chocolate or pasta you’ll feel good because you enjoy it, but then you slump because it makes you feel tired.
‘On the other hand, more protein or fat helps create neurotransmitters in the brain which give you drive and energy, basically waking you up. So foods like avocado, salmon, eggs, nuts and seeds are better things to start the day with.
The key to managing blood sugar levels by eating more protein and fat-based foods. It’s the carbs and mostly sugar that wreck your blood sugar levels and causes them to fluctuate like a see-saw throughout the day. (If you're looking for the right protein powder for women, we've found it.)
‘Less sugar at breakfast and a little bit more protein and fat works really well for stressed people. A lot of those fattier, protein-rich foods are much more nutrient rich as well.’
Naturally, good nutrition will lead to better sleep quality. If you start the day with drive and energy you’re inevitably going to be more active. As the day goes on you’ll start winding down because you are moving more, which leads to better sleep quality later on.
The second benefit is that eating less processed foods is kinder on your liver and kidneys. This helps your body enter 'rest and digest' at the end of the day.
When you consider how to lose belly fat, it’s easy to presume that you need to cut down fat to lose fat – but that’s not the case.
Researchers at John Hopkins Medicine found that participants who reduced their carbohydrate intake lost 10 more pounds on average compared to those who reduced their fat intake (almost 29lbs vs 18.7lbs loss on average). So keeping an eye on those carbs is essential.
According to Lee, when you eat your carbs has an equally big impact as how much you eat.
‘I’m of the mindset that carbs can be your worst enemy in the morning but your best friend at night’ he says, ‘So I’d actually recommend night time is when you have your carbohydrates if you struggle with sleep. It not only helps you to sleep better but also wind down.
‘Make sure they’re non-processed carbohydrates, so white rice, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes or pasta. But having those carbohydrates at night helps your body to create serotonin, which puts you into a calm, relaxed state.’
Regular exercise is essential for combatting belly fat, particularly if you’ve already got sleep and good nutrition down. But the type of exercise will have a big impact on how long it takes you to blast that belly.
Researchers at Harvard University found that the best way to cut belly fat is in fact weight training, according to a study published in the journal Obesity.
‘I’d recommend a traditional strength training programme for the first 4-6 weeks’ says Lee. ‘I don’t mean cross fit – it’s not about doing as many bench presses as you can in a minute, as that’s more intensity.
‘It’s about lifting a weight that’s challenging for 3-6 reps with good rest periods – anywhere from 90 seconds up to two minutes. It’s not so fast paced, but you’re still challenging the body.
‘This helps create a very positive hormone response from the body; essentially it’ll help create lean muscle and metabolise better body fat.’
Lee suggests lifting weights twice a week and incorporating restorative work such as a yoga class, a gentle swim, or a brisk walk for 30-40 minutes.
‘With stress the thing, we look to change is the intensity, but that’s not to say we don’t get moving.'
Get anywhere from 6-9 hours of quality sleep a night. You’ll need more if you’re training more, and less if you’re not. The main thing is that it’s quality sleep.’
Have an Epsom salt bath 2-3 times a week if you can, as it has an incredible effect on your sleep quality. When we’re stressed our magnesium levels deplete, but you can boost your levels back up with Epsom salt, which contains magnesium.
Try having your carbohydrates at night time if you struggle with sleep, as that not only helps you to sleep better but also wind down. It’ll help your body to create serotonin, which puts you into a calm, relaxed state.
Spend 2-3 minutes in bed each night diaphragmatic breathing. Research has shown the best technique is to breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds with your tummy full of air, exhale out of your nose for four seconds, then hold an empty tummy for four seconds and repeat.’
It can be difficult to monitor progression session to session if you're focusing on the way you look, or how much you weigh. Instead, work towards deadlifting your own body weight, running a half marathon or doing a pull-up.
Fear of embarrassing yourself can stop you even getting through the gym doors to begin with. Practice moves you want to try at home in the mirror where you can monitor your form. Then, when you add weights on the gym floor, you'll be a pro already.
This could be in the form of one-on-one sessions with a PT, but if your budget doesn't stretch that far, don't worry. Those trainers on the gym floor are there to make sure you're carrying out moves safely. So, if you're unsure about anything, ask them.
Ditching entire food groups (refined sugar being the sole exception) will get you absolutely nowhere. In order to fuel any kind of exercise and build strength, you need a diet balanced in carbs, protein and fat.
Don't keep doing a type of workout you really hate. If you loved sport as a kid, join a team: if you've always been a water baby, start swimming again. There's more to fitness than HIIT and lifting weights - unless that's your vibe, in which case, as you were.
If you're letting down a friend each time you bail on a workout, you're less likely to cancel than if you're going solo, so they can be a serious motivator. Plus, you'll have someone there to cheer you on as you power through those final few reps.
‘All of the above are pretty accessible – no fancy gadgets needed.’https://bit.ly/2BG0bwG