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

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

Finally! How to Get Rid of Lower Belly Fat Once and for All

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.

If you're tired of feeling stuck in your diet, keep reading to learn the most common reasons why stubborn belly fat won't go away and hear a few things you can do to change that. 

Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss

What has worked for you up until this point, may not be the solution you need anymore. 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 change your body composition - there's a difference! Getting a six-pack often requires a more strategic approach in fitness and tightly controlled nutrition to drive results. 

Weight loss can be a decrease in either muscle, body, or usually a combination of the two. Whereas changing your body composition is focused primarily on increasing lean mass and decreasing body fat. This could mean the number on the scale goes up or stays the same, even though you are losing body fat! 

So throw out your scale and grab your measuring tape, or get your body fat percentage analyzed, 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

Description

Male

Female

Athlete 6-13% 14-20%
Fitness 14-17% 21-24%
Average 18-24% 25-31%
Above Average >25% >32%

 

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.

How to Burn Belly Fat

You’ve probably see a ton of trendy diets and food ads that supposedly turn you into a fat burning machine! But burning fat and losing fat aren't quite the same thing. Burning fat is simply using fat as a source of fuel. This doesn't mean that you are dropping weight though. Your body is always burning a little bit of fat, even at rest. And often times you replace this fat with the calories you eat - causing no loss in overall fat mass.

Fat loss on the other hand is the result of cutting calories. If you eat less than you burn, your body fat stores do not get replaced and this results in overall weight loss/decreases in fat mass. But this is not always a perfect science of calories in vs. calories out. When it comes to body composition (% body fat), it gets a little more complicated. The type of workout you are doing, your diet, and lifestyle factors can all effect how successful you are at losing fatty tissue. 

And to make things harder, you cannot spot reduce fat - meaning when you do lose body fat it tends to come from all over, not just your belly fat. This can make the process feel like it takes even longer, since small reductions in fat throughout your body is much harder to visually see than fat loss from one specific area.

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Lose Stubborn Belly Fat and How to Fix It

Here are some common reasons for why you might not be able to lean out, paired with a few tips for what you can do about it. 

1). You're Eating More than You Think

Cutting calories is the only way to shed pounds. If you are eating less than you burn, you will lose weight. This is the single most important thing you can do for fat loss - eat fewer calories!

If you aren't dropping pounds, you may be eating more than you think. Are you staying on track all week long, counting calories during weekdays 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.

The Fix: Figure Out How Many Calories You Should Be Eating

Your calorie needs are directly related to your current weight, lean mass, and fitness needs. And finding out exactly how much you should be eating each day is not difficult. You can easily calculate how many calories you need a day using an online calculator or when signing up for a food tracking app. This is a crucial step in helping you be successful.

weekly phone nutrition tracking

Use a Calorie Counter App

Once you know how many calories you need each day, the next step is to hold yourself accountable. And it it is pretty impossible to know if you are sticking to your diet if you aren't tracking your calorie intake through a food tracking program like an app. This is the easiest and most effective way to maintain calorie control. It will also help hold you accountable to your diet and show you exactly how consistent you are being.

If you aren’t tracking your daily food and drink intake, you should start. This is probably the best step you can take towards achieving your fat loss goals. And if you are tracking already, here are a few important things to keep in mind:  

  • Track every single thing you eat and drink. Including added oils, sauces, small snacks, drinks, alcohol, and cheat meals to see exactly how much damage they are doing to your week.
  • Use weekly averages. You might be surprised how much your weekend splurge is adding to your weekly calorie average. If you eat 1500 calories every day during the week but have a 3,000 calorie Saturday, this could make your daily average look more like 1,700 calories.
  • Weigh and portion out your food as accurately as possible. Even minor differences in serving sizes can add up, especially when you are looking to tightly control your calories.

Pssst.. the Trifecta app has a database of over 6 million food items to search from, a barcode scanner for packaged food, and the ability to track your weekly calorie average.

2). Your Workouts Aren't Hard Enough

Exercise is not required for fat loss, but it can certainly help! The good news is that any exercise can help get rid of belly fat, since fat loss boils down to eating less calories than you burn. However, certain styles of exercise like strength training and HIIT may offer additional advantages.

The Fix: Exercises That Get Rid of Belly Fat

A long jog or spin on the elliptical may no longer cut it. While you may be burning calories with a moderate workout regime, the key to increased 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.

High-Intensity Interval Training - HIIT

HIIT workouts may 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 - since most workouts are short and burn a ton of calories.

Tababa 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 stopwatch or smart phone with a timer.

Psst... the Trifecta app has a pretty sick workout timer too! And daily workouts to try.

Based on the science of Tabata, 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.

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! Include more HIIT training in your weekly workouts or add Tabata when timing is tight.

Strength Training

If you're not lifting weights, start! Strength training is one of the best ways to tackle fat loss long-term by keeping your body composition in check. Building muscle mass increases your resting energy expenditure (this means you get to eat more food), tipping the energy balance equation in the favor of weight loss. Plus working your muscles through strength training not only promotes more lean mass but might also assist you in burning more fat all day long (6). Not to mention, muscle creates definition, giving you that toned look, and can make you look leaner overall. This is one of the biggest reasons not to measure your success by the numbers on the scale.

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 choices is important when it comes to body composition. If your macros are out of whack, you may be hindering your fat burning capabilities. In addition, eating nutritionally poor foods could slow your progress further by messing with your energy, mood, and appetite.

The Fix: Foods That Burn Belly Fat

Okay technically there aren't any foods that specialize in burning fat more than others. But some types of food can potentially give you an edge when it comes to improving lean mass and burning fat more efficiently.

Studies are continuing to show that what you eat plays a role in losing fat. The best fat burning diets should 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.

To clean up your diet, try the following:

Macros for Fat Loss

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

Start by eating more protein. Protein is one of the most beneficial foods you can eat for fat loss. It helps maintain your lean mass in a calorie deficit (helping you maintain your strength and muscle tone), and keeping lean mass while losing weight usually means you are more prone to lose body fat! Protein also helps reduce appetite and cravings, and is the most thermogenic macro (meaning you burn more calories digesting protein than fat or carbohydrates).

While your overall macro diet can play a key role in fat loss, protein is the most important. Figure out how many grams of protein you need each day and make it a priority to get this amount.

And if you want to take it a step further, find your ideal macro diet based on your calorie goals and fitness level using an online calculator or using the following chart:

Macros-Trifecta-08 (1)

Eat Less Processed Foods and More Vegetables

Consider cleaning up your diet by including more whole foods made with simple ingredients.

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 suggest that eating a diet consisting of mostly whole foods is associated with more weight loss (7,8,9).

In addition, in one study those who ate more vegetables, less processed foods, and less high sugar drinks over a year-long period, lost the most weight regardless of genetic make-up (10).

Drink More Water

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.

4). You're Drinking Too Much Alcohol

Alcohol is not only calorie dense, providing a whopping 7 calories per gram, but it can also cause increased appetite and lead to more 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 excess calories from carbs, fat, or protein you eat is more likely to get stored as fat. And even if you're not eating while drinking, your body is not effectively breaking down fat as a source of reserved fuel.

The Fix: Don't Drink Your Calories

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 from your drinks. 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 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 creates 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 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 may get stored as abdominal fat (11,12,13). So it's no wonder, excess stress could be preventing you from slimming down. Studies have even linked abdominal fat to poor mood (15,16,17). 

The Fix: Find Ways to Relax

Sometimes the hardest part about weight loss is your mindset. Here are some of the best ways to control stress and help you think more positively about your diet. 

Learn to Meditate

Try yoga! Or learn to meditate. Research suggests yoga is associated with decreased stress, increased fat loss, and improved mood (18,19,20). 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 (21). 

Get More Sleep

While stress can cause you to lose sleep, not sleeping enough may exacerbate your fat storage problem even further (22).

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

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!

Crush Your Fat Loss Diet

Sticking to a diet and fitness plan can feel overwhelming as it is, and life tends to always get in the way of our willpower and good intentions. If you're finding it difficult to plan, cook, portion, and track all of your food for fat loss, consider trying something a little easier - like a meal prep delivery service that does the hard work for you. Perfect your macros and finally lose those last five pounds with evidenced based nutrition plans. 

MAKE ME FOOD

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