Lots of women who set out to lose weight set their sights on a flatter stomach. But if you don’t have a plan of attack to specifically target belly fat, your diet and workout plan could be all for nothing.
So before you embark on your next belly-fat eliminating mission, here are a few things you need to know.
Its more about than looks
That’s because unlike subcutaneous fat, which hangs out directly under the skin, belly fat (a.k.a. visceral fat) hangs in and around your vital organs, says Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., a registered dietitian and trainer with SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. That goes for women who are at an otherwise “healthy” weight, too.
Your first order of business: Check your waist circumference. In women, measurements of 35 inches and greater are associated with a significant increase for chronic disease.
Genetics play a role
If you’re reading this, chances are you didn’t win the genetic lottery—at least not when it comes to belly fat. Actually, 2013 research published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics, suggests that there are five different genes that play into the amount of fat you store around your middle. Womp. Before you get super bummed though, remember that genetics influence only your susceptibility to a large waistline. It’s your lifestyle that ultimately runs the show.
Still it’s important to stay realistic when going after belly fat, says Georgie Fear, R.D., author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. If healthy nutrition, targeted exercise, and stress management you don’t make your abs looked Photoshopped, that’s okay.
Building muscle can help
Losing belly fat all comes down to muscle, which keeps your metabolic rate high and improves insulin sensitivity to prohibit fat from globbing onto your middle, Matheny says. In fact, a 2015 Harvard School of Public Health study of 10,500 adults shows that strength training fights belly fat better than cardio. Shoot for at least three to four days of strength training per week.
While lifting weights is bomb for fat loss, you can get the biggest benefits by combining regular strength exercises with a protein-rich diet. One study from McMaster University found that women who get 30 percent of their daily calories from protein lose twice as much belly fat as women who follow low-protein diets. With that in mind, aim to eat between 25 and 30 grams of protein—about the equivalent of half a chicken breast—at every meal.
The qualities of your calories matters
Even if you’re already getting the right amount of macronutrients (like carbs and protein), you can’t discount the importance of getting them from quality sources—meaning whole foods. Many processed foods are lacking in fiber and filled with chemicals that can throw off hormone levels and how your body stores fat, says Fear. Whole, quality foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and grass-fed beef supply your body with the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that keep belly fat off.
Related: Do the Calories on the Label Equal the Calories Stored?
You have to get your stress levels in check
Constantly elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol don’t just promote fat retention, they send it straight to your stomach, Matheny says. And that goes for mental and physical.
Common stressors that stand in the way of your fat-torching goals include too much exercise (if your workouts have plateaued, you might need to schedule some more rest), crazy workloads, and lack of sleep. In fact, research from Wake Forest University shows that getting five hours or less of shut-eye per night is tightly linked with increased visceral fat. Aim to get seven to nine hours a night and schedule some deep-breathing between meetings to slash stress and work towards your belly goals.