Struggling to Lose Belly Fat (and Keep It Off)? Follow These 15 Dietitian-Recommended Tips
If you wish your belly was leaner and you're exercising to make it happen (with little success), we interviewed 14 experts, including 11 registered dietitians, who all agree: diet is key to losing belly fat. While it's not possible to spot-reduce fat specifically from your tummy, here are their simple, effective tips to help you use your diet to reduce your overall body fat percentage, which will help slim down your waistline.
Make Sure You're Not Overconsuming Calories
You need to use up more energy than you take in order to lower your body fat percentage, so monitoring your calorie intake is important. In order to maintain your weight, "Caloric needs are based on numerous factors," Stephanie Ferrari, a registered dietitian with Fresh Communications, told POPSUGAR. "The most important ones for a healthy individual include gender, age, weight, height, and activity level."
Registered dietitian Jessica Levings from Balanced Pantry recommended making an appointment with a registered dietitian so they can help you design an individualized eating plan based on your calorie needs and weight goals. If you're unable to meet with an RD, use this formula to calculate how many calories you need to lose weight.
Make Sure You're Eating Enough
Experts always talk about eating in a calorie deficit to lose weight, but dipping too low can also be an issue. Without enough food for survival (including our normal daily functions), your body will send signals to conserve calories, slowing down your metabolism, explained registered dietitian and CSCS-certified trainer Lisa Bunn. "While calorie deficit is a must for weight loss, the nuance is that we don't want it to be too much of a deficit."
Bunn explained that without enough food for survival, our bodies will start shutting down and use muscle tissue for energy instead of fat stores. Aim for a moderate calorie deficit, not a major one, to avoid extreme hunger, which could result in binge eating. When creating a calorie deficit, never dip below 1,200 calories a day.
The difference between being in a calorie deficit and a calorie surplus (losing vs. gaining weight) can be a few hundred calories, Lisa explained, so she recommended tracking food to accurately calculate what you're eating. Again, you can set these daily calorie target goals with a registered dietitian or by using this formula.
Focus on Whole Foods
If it comes from a package with a million ingredients listed that you can't pronounce, it's probably not the best choice. Eat foods in the form most closely found in nature. Vermont-based registered dietitian and nutritionist Maddie Kinzly MS, LD, told POPSUGAR that whole foods are "loaded with healthy vitamins, minerals, and fiber to keep you full," which helps you feel satisfied, so you don't overeat.
Your plate should be made up of whole foods, such as complex carbs including fruit, sweet potatoes, and whole grains, plus a variety of veggies, nuts, and seeds, as well as lean protein. Try to limit the packaged foods with tons of ingredients, additives, and dyes.
Limit Your Sugar Intake
Although sugary foods tend to be high in calories, it's the effect the sugar has on the body you need to worry about. Jason Fung, MD, a nephrologist (kidney specialist), explained that eating processed carbs and sugary foods such as cookies, crackers, pasta, and white bread spikes your insulin levels, which can cause weight gain. Keeping your insulin levels low will help reduce your overall body fat percentage, and that includes belly fat.
That's not all: when eating sugar elevates insulin levels, it blocks leptin (the hormone that signals to your body that you're full) and overloads your dopamine receptors, which leads to insatiable cravings, explained Susan Peirce Thompson, a psychology professor with a PhD in brain and cognitive sciences. In her book Bright Line Eating, she explained that this is why you eat cookie after cookie and still want more — eating sugar makes you crave it.
You don't need to ditch all carbs, though. Avoid refined carbs and go for complex carbs like whole grains, beans, veggies, and fruits. Registered dietitian Leslie Langevin, MS, author of The Anti-Inflammatory Kitchen Cookbook said, "They break down slowly in the body because of their high-fiber content and help to keep blood sugar levels steady since they are digested slower. They're also richer in nutrients than simple carbohydrates." Aim for three servings a day of whole grains, one to two of fruit, and one to two of legumes. Here's a list of the best carbs for weight loss.
Get Enough Daily Protein
One macro to focus on for fat loss is protein. While eating whole foods and watching your calorie intake are important, getting enough lean protein at every single meal can help build muscle and satiate hunger — and it may even rev up your metabolism, said dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, RD. Getting enough protein makes it easier to stick to your daily calorie goals because you'll feel satisfied.
"This doesn't necessarily mean eat more meat," Kinzly explained. "There are many plant sources that contain protein, including grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and vegetables."
Many people think that eating a diet low in carbs and high in protein is the key to losing weight. But one common problem people face, which leads to a lack of fat loss, is eating too much protein, explained Levings. "The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes, spaced out throughout the day and after workouts," she said. "Anything extra will be stored the same way as any extra calorie — as fat."
Eat Veggies With Every Meal and Snack
Eating more veggies — not just at dinnertime — is one of the easiest ways to start losing body fat. Vegetables are the food group you want to be filling up on the most, because "they are high in volume and weight and fill up our stomachs, which helps us register the feeling of fullness," said registered dietitian and cocreator of Beachbody's 2B Mindset nutrition program Ilana Muhlstein, MS, RDN.
Registered dietitians Stephanie Clarke, RD, and Willow Jarosh, RD, of C&J Nutrition, agree, and said that veggies are also high in fiber, so they'll satiate your hunger longer, helping you consume fewer daily calories. Aim to include them every time you eat, for all meals and snacks.
Eat More of These Foods
Water-filled veggies are great for helping you lose weight because they tend to be low in calories and they help you stay regular so you can relieve bloat, Muhlstein said, which can make your belly look puffy. Some great examples are potassium-rich tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchinis, which she said can help release water retention.
Eat More Plant-Based Meals
Take eating more veggies a step further, and make more of your meals plant-based. Studies show that vegetarians (and even more so, vegans) routinely have lower bodyweights, Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and Arivale coach Ginger Hultin, MS, CSO, told POPSUGAR. That's because plant-based foods like veggies are high in fiber, and research shows that women who followed a higher-fiber diet were at a reduced likelihood of having an increased waist circumference.
Try eating a more plant-based diet, focusing on veggies, whole grains, and plant proteins such as beans, nuts, seeds, and soy products. You could even set up a plan where you eat vegan on certain days of the week (try this vegan lasagna on pasta night) or eat vegan until dinner.
Learn Your Hunger Scale
Many of us eat out of habit to satisfy cravings because we're bored, because it's a certain time of day (noon equals lunchtime!), or because someone else is eating around us. Langevin said to get to know what true hunger feels like. If you're not hungry for breakfast at 8 a.m., it's OK to push it to 10 a.m. when you are actually hungry.
Clarke said to be mindful of the hunger scale. "It's a scale from one to 10, with one being your absolute hungriest, feeling-lightheaded level, five being completely neutral (not hungry and not at all full), and 10 being really uncomfortably stuffed," Clarke explained. "You want to grab a snack or meal at about a three, when you're moderately hungry, and stop eating around a six, just past that completely neutral feeling."
Basically, you want to develop a personalized eating schedule where you eat when fairly hungry (if you waited another hour, you'd be famished) and eat just enough to feel satisfied and be hungry again three to four hours later.
Eat Until You're 80% Full to Prevent Overeating
We are not fans of the clean-plate club. Instead of putting down your fork when you've finished eating every last bite, eat slowly and pay close attention to how your belly feels. To prevent overeating, "eat until you are no longer hungry, not until you are full," Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute, told POPSUGAR in a previous interview.
When cooking meals at home, serve an appropriate portion on a plate, then put the rest in the fridge — not on the table in front of you, because you'll be more likely to go for seconds when you're not even hungry. It's also OK to leave some food on your plate if you're not hungry for it, Langevin agreed. Pack away the extras immediately so you're not tempted to grab bites just because it's in front of you. When eating at restaurants, try this tactic: ask for a to-go container as soon as your meal is served, and pack up half right away to save for tomorrow's lunch.
Eat Mindfully, Without Distraction
When it's time to eat, don't rush or eat on the go. Sit down so you can appreciate your food, relax, and savor each bite. Paying close attention to your food will help you eat more slowly, which research has linked to smaller waist sizes.
John Morton, MD, chief of bariatric surgery at Stanford University, added in a previous interview that beyond giving you more time to tune in to your hunger cues, you'll also feel more satisfied and less likely to reach for another snack. So put down the phone, step away from your TV or computer screen, and enjoy some time alone or some pleasant conversation.
Try Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting (IF) involves not eating (aka fasting) for part of each day or a few times a week. One common example of this is called 16:8, in which you eat during an eight-hour window and fast for the other 16 hours. When your body doesn't have a constant energy source from the food you eat, it allows your body to utilize the fat stores it already has, helping you lose body fat and ultimately belly fat, too.
Ferrari and Luiza Petre, MD, a weight-loss specialist and board-certified cardiologist, told POPSUGAR that IF raises growth hormone levels and lowers insulin levels, both of which help burn more fat. "Insulin decreases when you fast, and lower levels of insulin results in burning more fat," Ferrari added.
Eating in a shortened window not only reduces hunger, but since you're not eating for long periods of time, there are also fewer opportunities to consume calories, which is why intermittent fasting helps people create a calorie deficit with little effort.
Get Your Fill of Fiber
Research shows that women who followed a higher-fiber diet were at a reduced likelihood of having an increased waist circumference. Aim to get at least 25 grams of fiber, which Muhlstein said can help keep you regular and relieve belly bloat.
Go for soluble fiber; it dissolves in water and gastrointestinal fluids and creates a gel-like substance that mixes with other partially digested food in your small intestine. "This gel that forms slows digestion in the body, which keeps you feeling full for longer," Beckerman said. Go for foods like oat bran, barley, lentils, beans, and some fruits and veggies such as cauliflower, apples, and citrus fruits. Try this recipe for cauliflower rice and beans.
Limit Alcohol (or Avoid It Completely)
That glass of wine or bottle of beer every night with dinner isn't doing your waistline any favors. Each drink is around 80 to 150 calories (or more!), and aside from that, Kinzly said drinking can dull your willpower and make you more likely to say yes to food when you're not hungry (been there!).
She added, "Excessive alcohol will cause the liver to stop metabolizing fat and carbohydrates in order to metabolize the alcohol first." If you don't want to give it up entirely, choose one or two nights a week to enjoy a drink.
Drink Tons of Water
Drinking water throughout the day will fill your belly and satiate your thirst, which is often mistaken for hunger. Staying hydrated will also help you consume fewer daily calories and keep you alert, so you're less likely to need a sugary pick-me-up. Fitness guru Bob Harper revealed he drinks at least a gallon a day and said it's "one of the best weight-loss tips in the world." But there's no need to drink that much! Maya Feller, MS, RD, of Maya Feller Nutrition told POPSUGAR we should aim for 91 ounces a day, which is a little more than 11 cups.
"Rather than food right away, I recommend that each meal start with drinking water first," Muhlstein said. Aim to drink 16 ounces of water before reaching for your first bite of food. To help you remember, when you sit down to eat, make sure you have a big water bottle or two eight-ounce glasses.