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Why Can't I Lose My Belly Fat? What Can I Do About it?

Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

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Why is it the last few pounds are always the hardest to lose? It doesn’t seem fair that it is often easier to lose 20 pounds than it is to drop the last five. If you’ve been cutting calories, eating better and hitting the gym, but still can’t seem to shake that last little bit of belly fat, you are not alone. By design, your body doesn’t want to lose any more weight, especially if you are already close to your optimal weight range - your survival skills are to blame for this one!

women measuring waist circumference to estimate her body fat loss

What has worked for you up until this point, may not still be the solution you need. It might be time to shake it up and give your metabolism a little kick in the butt. And it could be that you don't need to lose weight, you really just need to lose body fat. There's a difference. So throw out your scale and grab your measuring tape, or use an at home body fat analyzer, and track your progress using a different metric. Your ideal body fat percentage depends on age and genetics, but should fall somewhere around one of the following: 

Ideal body fat percentage chart.jpg

If your current percentage falls below the athlete range, you probably do not need to lose any more weight. But if you are at a higher range and looking to decrease, there are a few things you can try.

Take a look at the following common reasons for why you can't seem to lean out, paired with a few tips for what you can do about it. 

1). Your Workouts Aren't Hard Enough 

A long jog or spin on the elliptical is no longer going to cut it. While you may be burning calories with a moderate workout regime, the key to fat burning is to increase calorie burn even after your done in the gym - by building lean mass or increasing you VO2 max. Muscle is more metabolic, meaning it helps you burn more calories at rest, and the more muscle you have, the better you store carbs and utilize them for energy.

VO2 max is the measurement of how efficiently your body can access fat stores for energy and oxygen during intense workouts. And increasing your VO2 max, will increase the amount of fat you are able to burn.  

fitness man tired and resting at the gym after a hard workout

What to Do About it: Increase Your Intensity

If you want to get serious about fat burning, you’ll need to up the magnitude of your workouts with high intensity interval training (HIIT) or Tabata Training two to three times per week.

HIIT workouts have been shown to promote fat loss and improve stamina faster than endurance training alone (1,2,3,4). HIIT not only helps you maximize fat burning throughout the day, but can also whip you into shape super fast. If the thought of HIIT scares you, it shouldn't. The intensity can easily be adapted to your individual fitness level - you can go at your own pace! 

annie thorisdottir crossfit regionals bike sprint high intensityTababa is a four minute HIIT workout shown to burn up to 400 calories per day (5). It was developed by Dr. Izumi Tabata at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, and will put your metabolism in ultra-high gear. Pick a repetitive workout you can do at a high intensity, like sprints, burpees, mountain climbers, or jumping squats, and grab your stop watch or smart phone with a timer. Based on the science, the most effective interval is 20 seconds as hard and fast as you can with 10 second rest in between, with a total of eight intervals (8 x 20 seconds + 10 seconds rest in between each set = 4 minutes). The trick is to try and maintain the same number of reps for each round, and you should be completely spent at the end.

Add Tabata to the end of a moderate workout or do it as a single workout when timing is tight.

Lift Heavier Weights

If you're not lifting weights, start! And the heavier the better. Muscle mass increases your resting energy expenditure, tipping the energy balance equation in the favor of weight loss. Strength training not only promotes more lean mass, but can also assist you in burning more fat all day long (6). Not to mention, increasing definition can make you look leaner overall. This is one of the biggest reasons not to measure your success by the numbers on the scale.

Muscle takes up less space than fatty tissue, and even though your weight may increase or stabilize, you will get leaner and look more toned from increasing your lean mass. 

Crossfit athlete Brooke Ence lifting heavy weights

2). You're Not Eating the Right Amount 

Cutting calories is the only way to shed pounds. If you are eating less than you burn, you will lose weight. However, if you are restricting your calories too low and, especially over an extended period of time, you may be hindering your rate of fat loss (7,8). Cutting calories too low can also mess with your appetite, mood and cause serious health concerns. 

Or you may actually be eating more than you think. Are you staying on track all week long, counting calories during week days but allowing more wiggle room on the weekends? If this sounds familiar, you may be giving yourself too much freedom on off days. It is entirely possible to undo a week's worth of hard work with a few days of excess calories, especially if alcohol is involved.  Your body does not work in 24-hour increments, and what you eat every day plays an important role in the success of your diet. 

What to Do About it: Track Your Intake 

Remember, weight loss and fat loss are not the same thing. With weight loss the numbers on the scale will change, but with fat loss they may even increase if your are also building muscle. Tracking your calories is one way to ensure you are sticking to your diet. 

The best way to keep your calories on point, is to keep a record of what you're eating every day. Download a free tracking app, like Trifecta, and start to hold yourself accountable. 

woman tracking food intake of turkey burger veggies rice and calories for weight loss using trifecta app

Take a Break From Your Diet

If you've already been losing weight, you may need to take a break for a few weeks and try to maintain your new normal to give your body a chance to recover. But if you're just getting started, you'll want to start by figuring out how many calories you need to lose weight. Then track your intake to see how close you are getting to this range.

You may also want to consider shifting your calorie intake from one day to the next to keep your metabolism going strong. Research shows switching from low calorie days to higher calorie days will still promote fat loss, and may not as negatively effect your metabolic rate the same way very low calorie intake does over time (9). But be smart about how large of a swing you can make and consider eating more on days that you are more active, while restricting on less active days. 

3).You're Eating the Wrong Foods

While calories in vs. calories out is the number one factor in determining weight reduction, the quality of your food is most important when it comes to body composition. If you are eating too many carbs or too much fat, you may be hindering your fat burning capabilities. In addition eating nutritionally poor foods, even within the right calorie and macro balance, could slow your progress further.

woman at computer eating fat carbs noodles diet weight loss

What to Do About it: Balance Your Macros

Getting your macro balance on point will ensure you are utilizing the food you eat as efficiently as possible and more fatty tissue is broken down.

When looking to lean out, you may need to adjust your carbs, protein, and fat. Research shows eating less carbs and more protein may promote more fat loss than traditional low fat dieting (10,11,12, 13). But eating too much fat can still lead to weight gain. 

Finding the right balance is key. Calculate your macro needs using an online calculator, or the following breakdown:

CALCULATE MACROS CHART.jpg

You may also want to consider changing your macros daily based on your workout regimen. While you can cut carbs fairly low on rest days, days you're doing high intensity training or heavy lifting will require more carbs for energy and recovery. You can keep it simple by eating most of your carbs during the time of day you are most active and slightly increasing your carbs on days you are very active. This will help make sure you are fueling your body for success and promoting optimal fat burning.  

Eat Less Processed Foods

Heavily processed foods are typically full of added trans fats, sodium and sugar - none of which is going to help you lose fat or slim down. One study showed your body may even burn twice as many calories digesting less processed foods. And growing research continues to show eating a diet consisting of mostly whole foods is associated with more weight loss (14,15,16). Eating a more "clean" diet may be the extra push you need. 

colorful nutritious fruits and vegetables variety peppers pears broccoli

Diet quality matters and studies are continuing to show that what you eat plays a role in losing fat. The best fat burning diets should also include lots of vegetables. Most non-starchy veggies - anything except peas, corn and potatoes - provide few calories and loads of good nutrition you need. Micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals, in vegetables are an important factor in weight management because they  help control appetite and support a healthy metabolism.

One recent study  showed that regardless of genetic make-up, those who ate more vegetables, less processed foods, and less high sugar drinks over a year long period, lost the most weight (17).

Drink More Water

Stop drinking your calories. Cutting out high calorie beverages, especially sugary drinks like soda and juice, is an easy and effective way to control calorie intake and get your macro balance looking better.  This also includes excessive protein drinks.

Unless you are using protein shakes as a full meal replacement, or you need them for training and recovery, they may just be adding excess calories to your day.

Opt for more water to keep you hydrated and running like a well oiled machine. And be sure to track all your beverages with your food to find the right balance that works for you. 

drink more water to lose weight

4). You're Drinking Too Much Alcohol

Alcohol is not only calorically dense, providing a whopping 7 calories per gram, but it can also cause increased appetite, and increased fat storage. When you are consuming alcohol in high amounts, your body prioritizes metabolizing the toxins from your drinks before anything else - this means any carbs, fat, or protein you eat is more likely to get stored as fat if it cannot be immediately used for energy. And if you're not eating while drinking, your body is not effectively breaking down fat as a source of reserved fuel.

What to Do About it: Stop Drinking

Tequila margarita drinking low calorie alcohol for weight loss

It might be time to think about quitting alcohol for a bit. Or if you're not willing to give it up, you might want to seriously consider the amount you are drinking and make sure you are also tracking the calories. It is possible to enjoy a few adult beverages every now and then and still be successful with your fitness goals, but it all comes down to how much you are actually drinking. You will also want to opt for more low calorie drinks and avoid too many options with excess sugar and added calories. 

5).You're Stressed Out

Stress causes a fight-or-flight response by the body, which causes adrenaline to spike. Adrenaline increases your heart-rate and breathing, and also helps release stores of glucose and fats in the body to be delivered to throughout your body for immediate energy. Once adrenaline subsides, your body releases cortisol, a catabolic hormone that increases appetite and promotes the breakdown of muscle for more immediate energy.

Sometimes a little stress can be a good thing because it allows you to react quickly, harnessing energy where it's needed most, and performing at a higher level.

When stress is channeled in a negative way, like when daily or chronic stress from life events does not result in the need for immediate output, excess nutrients released from your stress response get stored as abdominal fat (18,19,20,21). So it's no wonder, excess stress could be preventing you from slimming down. Studies have even linked abdominal fat to poor mood (22, 23, 24). 

What to Do About it: Learn to Meditate

Boxer Power Bodybuilding Mike Rashid relaxed wellbeing meditate for better health

Try yoga! Or learn to meditate. Research shows yoga is associated with decreased stress, increased fat loss, and improved mood (25, 26, 27). The practice of yoga is centered around controlling your breath and being more conscious of how you react to the word around you.

By practicing yoga or learning to quiet your mind with regular meditation, you will be able to control your breathing and mental response when stress occurs. You might even find that it improves your mood and overalls sense of well-being (28). 

Get More Sleep

While stress can cause you to lose sleep, not sleeping enough can exacerbate your fat storage problem even further (29).

You should be sleeping at least seven hours a night - uninterrupted, quality sleep.

And playing catch-up on the weekends is not going to counteract the lack of sleep you got all week long. Make your rest a priority and dedicate time each night to getting some rest. Remove distractions, like your TV, phone, or pets, and find a dark, quiet place to lay down. Use ear plugs or sleep masks if needed. Your body and your mind will thank you. 

Stop Trying So Hard

stretching whitney hueser by water relaxing for better health

Contrary to popular belief, you have complete control over your mood and your reaction to the things around you.

Find ways to channel your inner positivity and release the feel good vibes your body needs. 

Cut yourself a break and invest in some much needed TLC. Calm your stress levels by taking time to unwind with a good book, get a massage, or take some time off work. Surround yourself with positive people and things you enjoy. If you've been pushing yourself hard, give yourself a little more time and patience to be successful. You got this!

 

Looking for any easy and stress free way to get your nutrition on point with a meal delivery program?

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