No matter what your age or genetic makeup, here are six research-backed fixes to shrink both kinds of belly fat.
Make an Effort to Be Mindful.
Can you consistently identify your physical and mental state? ("I'm craving chocolate cake because I'm in a bad mood, and I find chocolate comforting.") Can you stay with that kind of feeling in the moment without judging it? That's mindfulness—and people who had trouble experiencing it were 34 percent more likely to be obese and have excess abdominal fat, according to a 2015 Brown University study. Being aware of physical sensations, like feeling full, as well as emotions, may help you make better diet choices and boost your confidence, which may prompt you to exercise more and take care of yourself, says epidemiologist Eric Loucks, Ph.D., the study's author.
Crank Up Your Workout Intensity.
When it comes to belly fat, it's not the calories burned that count; it's how hard you exercise. Overweight women who did bouts of intense aerobic exercise experienced a greater reduction in waist circumference and visceral fat than did those who exercised at a conventional pace, even though the two workouts were each done five times a week and burned the same number of calories, according to 2008 University of Virginia study. "When you exercise at a higher intensity, your body releases more growth hormone, which helps reduce visceral fat," says Arthur Weltman, Ph.D., a kinesiologist and the study's author.
Drop Into Downward Dog.
Aerobic exercise isn't the only way to cut your gut. Overweight women who practiced yoga for one hour, three times a week, for 16 weeks decreased their levels of visceral fat, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Menopause. Not only does yoga promote mindfulness but a regular practice can also significantly lower cortisol levels, found a 2013 study published in Indian Journal of Psychiatry.
Say Yes to the Bread Basket.
You don't have to go paleo to shrink your stomach. On the contrary, people who ate less whole-grain bread were the most likely to have excess abdominal fat, according to a 2014 study of more than 50,000 adults published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. (Some researchers speculate that eating less bread may lead to a lower daily intake of fiber, which is filling and helps prevent hunger-triggering, insulin-surging fluctuations in blood sugar.)
Eat Fat to Shed Fat.
Gram for gram, fat contains more calories than carbohydrates or protein, but a diet rich in healthy fats is still significantly more likely to lead to lasting weight loss than is a low-fat regimen, according to a 2015 review of 53 studies conducted by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston. Monounsaturated fatty acids (or MUFAs)—found abundantly in avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil—are especially beneficial for belly fat: Women on a 1,600-calorie-a-day diet rich in MUFAs lost nearly 30 percent of their visceral and subcutaneous fat after just four weeks, according to a 2012 Yale University study. The catalyst? The anti-inflammatory properties of MUFAs, which help keep insulin and visceral-fat levels low.
Curb Your Calorie Intake on Occasion.
Long-term fasting is difficult and can even be dangerous, but dropping your calorie count for four to five days every few months may fool your system into shedding belly fat, according to a 2015 study from the University of Southern California Longevity Institute, in Davis. People who consumed 34 to 54 percent fewer calories than normal (by drinking a specially formulated low-protein, low-sugar meal-replacement drink) for five continuous days a month and ate the way they usually did the other 25 days lost a significant amount of visceral fat after three months. "After a couple of days of [pseudo fasting], the body turns to stored abdominal fat for energy," says Valter Longo, Ph.D., a gerontologist and the lead study author. The study was done on just 38 people, but other research reveals similar benefits from alternate-day fasting—that is, eating as you normally would one day, dipping to around 500 calories the next day, and so on.
Following this strategy for two or more months can reduce visceral fat by 20 to 50 percent, according to ongoing research from the University of Illinois, Chicago. Not only does it reduce calorie intake but "every-other-day fasting also lowers cholesterol and insulin levels and staves off insulin resistance—all of which can reduce visceral fat," says study author Krista A. Varady, Ph.D., an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois, Chicago. (Always get your doctor's OK before fasting.)