Working hard but stomach still not resembling a washboard? It’s time to bring in the experts…
'How to lose lower belly fat female' has seen a 3,800 per cent rise in Google searches over the past year – whether being more sedentary in lockdown is the cause, or because July seems to have crept up on us out of nowhere and we want to back in our summer clothes pronto, how to get rid of belly fat seems to be at the forefront of our minds.
Losing belly fat isn't just an appearance-based concern though; according to NHS Choices, fat collecting around your middle poses more health risks than fat that sits elsewhere.
We store spare body fat under the skin and also around the vital organs in our abdomen. Fat around the abdomen causes more health problems than, say, fat carried around the bottom or on the thighs. Having a large amount of tummy fat (when compared to having fat around the bottom or thighs) makes you more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and heart problems. All the more reason to want to send it packing.
Hardly joyful news if you have a few pounds to lose, but don’t panic if you’re developing a paunch - there are reasons that could explain why you’re accumulating belly fat.
1. You're anxious
“Cortisol, the stress hormone, plays a part in laying down central adipose tissue (belly fat), so if you are in a stressed state then it will be very hard to shift. Stress can come from many sources- emotional strain, conflict at work or relationship trouble. Destress by building in yoga practice and mindfulness to your daily routine.”
2. You're eating too much sugar
It's not new information that sweet treats can result in belly fat.
"A high sugar diet can cause belly fat to stick fast even if you’re restricting calories and trying to lose weight, thought excessive calorie restriction isn’t something I would recommend," says Libby.
To make a serious impact on your belly fat, cutting out sugar spikes is key, says Dr Michael Mosley, founder of The Fast 800 Diet . "A surprising number of ‘diet’ snacks and drinks are high in sugar and are marketed as diet foods because they happen to be low in fat.
"Limit your intake of any food or drink containing more than five per cent sugar to no more than twice a week," Dr Mosley advises. This includes sweet fruits such as mango and pineapple and sugary smoothies and juices, he continues. Likewise, replace processed carbs such as white bread, chips and pasta with slow-release energy sources, such as brown rice or quinoa.
"Two things will surprise you: the amount of sugar you were consuming unawares and the speed at which your belly fat will begin to tame itself when you cut it out," says Dr Mosley.
3. You're not sleeping enough
Sleep duration is associated with elevated levels of the hormone ghrelin (which promotes hunger) and reduced circulating levels of leptin, the hormone that supresses our appetite. Because of this, not sleeping can lead to increased levels of appetite and hunger and an expanding portion of belly fat.
“By getting enough sleep your body will reset its hormones and you’ll make better food choices,” confirms Dr Michael Mosley. Easier said than done, we know!
If you’re struggling to get some shut eye, get to the root of what’s causing your insomnia and learn how to help yourself nod off using expert wellbeing techniques. If you’re in the following situation, however, you’ll be in no doubt as to what’s causing your sleeplessness…
4. You’re a new mother
First things first, never put pressure on yourself to spring back to your pre-baby body and definitely don’t rush things (that goes for weight loss full stop). Your belly has just housed new life and brought a wonder into the world; cut it, and more importantly, yourself, some slack. Up your activity levels slowly - Lucy advocates patience and TLC:
“If you’re a new mum then losing weight from around the tummy can be very hard - hormones take time to settle down and stretched muscles won’t knit back together instantly after pregnancy. It will take time, so give yourself as long as it takes.”
Consult a post-natal fitness specialist, join a community of other new mums for support and a good belly laugh ( Frame's Mumhood programme is pure genius where both fun and fitness is concerned, or try home workout platform Results Wellness Lifestyle's Results With Bump programme) and try to focus on what your body has achieved of late over what it might look like right now.
Post-baby or not, overdoing it is never good…
5. You're exercising too much
There’s no doubt that slobbing out won’t do anything to diminish belly fat, but going overboard isn’t the answer either, as Libby affirms:
“Physical stresses such as overexercising and endurance exercise can upset cortisol balance. Switch gruelling cardio workouts for 20-30 minute HIIT sessions instead.”
HIIT the ground running (sorry) with these get fit fast workouts .
If a protruding tum comes with cramps, wind and bowel trouble, an unhappy digestive system is likely to blame and could be making a less than trim tum situation look and feel a lot worse than it is. Your first step is to beating bloat is to identify the cause of your tummy trouble , and Lucy suggests trying a meal tweak to see if it makes a difference:
“Avoid eating fruit after a meal, as fruit can cause food to ferment in your stomach, leading to bloating and lots of gas.”
7 You're not doing any cardio
The classic sit-up has been sold to us as the best ab toner, but ab exercises alone won't burn fat that sits on the stomach. "When it comes to fat loss we cannot pinpoint where it will come off first and we cannot spot reduce fat," says personal trainer Tash Lankester from exercise studio Flex Chelsea.
Aim for a mix of cardio and core toning exercises, like these ones from Joe Wicks , for the best results.
8. You're not lifting weights
While bodyweight resistance training is highly effective, pumping a little iron pays dividends when it comes to blasting belly fat.
A few weight training sessions a week will set you on a path for a speedier metabolism, as according to the NHS muscle burns more calories than fat , thus the more muscle you have, the more fat you torch, and the benefits continue after you’ve left the gym too, as resting metabolic rate improves, meaning that you burn more calories throughout the day.
9. You're cutting out fat from your diet
It seems logical to assume that fat contributes to fat, but nutritionists are keen to point out that since the 'low fat' revolution of the 70s, our waistlines have widened dramatically. As personal trainer and nutritionist Keris Marden and fitness expert and health coach Matt Whitmore point out in The Paleo Primer: A Jump-Start Guide to Losing Body Fat and Living Primally :
“Have you ever wondered what takes the place of the removed fat? Answer: heaps of synthetic, non-food chemicals that wreak havoc on our metabolism and digestion. What’s more, most low-fat and fat-free products contain loads of sugar or artificial sweeteners to make up for the lack of taste.”
For a flatter tummy and lower body weight in general, healthy fats such as coconut oil and avocados could well be your weight loss weapon, as Keris and Matt highlight:
“Fat can play a vital role in weight loss[...] the single most important aim of your nutrition should be to balance your blood sugar levels. Dietary fat helps you accomplish that by slowing down the release of nutrients into the bloodstream, so by all means, add a little olive oil or butter to your meals. This will help regulate your appetite and keep your energy levels consistent.”
Fewer sugar spikes, reduced cake cravings and a drip feed of health-giving nutrients into the body will seriously reduce the incidence of belly swelling binges.
10. Your 'healthy' protein shake is making you put on weight
There's something that feels ever so virtuous about sipping on a protein shake post-workout to supercharge your efforts, but it could be doing you more harm than good.
"Protein powders that contain added sugars can drastically increase your daily calorie intake without you even realising," warns Shivraj Bassi, founder of supplement brand Innermost. Look at the sugar content in your protein powder to make sure it's not a secret saboteur.
11. You're menopausal
During both perimenopause and menopause, weight gain around the middle is entirely normal. "Many women find their body shape can change during menopause due to a combination of factors including hormones, lifestyle, diet, lack of exercise, age-related loss of muscle tissue and genetics," says Lola Biggs, dietitian at supplement brand Together Health.
"The perimenopause and early post-menopause stages are when women gain fat mass as their oestrogen levels drop," Lola continues. "Weight gain during this time is often around the abdomen and middle section areas. Women of childbearing age tend to store fat in the lower body making them pear-shaped while postmenopausal women tend to store fat around their abdomen – so apple-shaped."
"It's important during this time to eat a healthy diet, move more - take daily exercise, be it walking , yoga or strength and resistance training to help maintain healthy bone mass – and get enough good quality sleep. Don’t crash diet, don’t do fad diets and try and limit the amount of alcohol and sweet/fatty/processed foods," Lola says.
We quizzed nutritionist Hannah Alderson on her advice for anyone wanting to tackle weight gain around the middle during menopause. She identifies weight training, magnesium and eating starch in the 'right' way as key players. Watch her video below for her guidance.
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Something more serious…
If your diet and fitness regimes are ship-shape, but you're still not losing any weight, it may be a good idea to seek medical advice. Hormonal disruption can affect fat distribution, so consulting a hormone expert such as Dr Marion Gluck and her team could help, but book an appointment with your GP first for a general health check.