Three ways to reduce belly fat

Medical Director, UK Insurance at Bupa UK
08 June 2017

‘How can I lose belly fat?’ pulls up over two million hits on Google. It’s a hot topic that goes beyond wanting to improve appearance. Carrying excess weight around your waist is a sign that you have a type of fat called visceral fat surrounding the internal organs in your abdomen, which is bad news for your health too.

A man sat at his computer

Belly fat is linked to a number of serious health problems such as:

While anyone can have this type of deep visceral fat around their inner organs, it’s a particular health problem in men. It’s important that you make some changes to get your body into a healthier place, both inside and out.

Is putting on weight just part of getting older?

It’s true that as we get older, hormonal changes mean that we start to lose muscle mass and gain fat mass. This makes it harder to keep to a healthy weight but that’s not to say it’s impossible. In fact, people who are aged 65 and over are healthier than their ancestors and are living longer – proof that staying healthy can be done. Our lifestyle habits, choices and behaviours, especially around diet and exercise have a big part to play, and that’s something you definitely have control over.

What does it mean if my BMI is okay but I’ve got excess weight round my middle?

A BMI figure is just one way of measuring your health. So even if you have a BMI within a healthy range, but you’re carrying weight round your middle, then you shouldn’t just assume you’re okay. Research suggests that if you have a normal BMI but carry excess fat around your middle, then you’re more likely to have the deeper visceral belly fat that puts your health at risk. This suggests that it’s not about what your weight is necessarily, but about where you carry it that’s the bigger issue.

Don’t ignore what’s in front of you – you’re at risk of serious health problems if your waist circumference measures over 94 cm. You’re at high risk if your waist measures over 102 cm.

So what works in reducing belly fat?

If you want to reduce your belly fat, these are my personal recommendations.

Cut down on sugar

Cut down on excess and added sugar, especially fructose (a type of sugar). Sugar-sweetened drinks, and in particular fructose-sweetened ones, have been shown in some research to cause higher levels of belly fat than other types of sugars. Though you should aim to reduce how much refined sugar you have in your diet overall.

If you have a high intake of sugar, it’s been suggested by some experts that your liver can’t handle it and processes it in a way that results in damage to your health.

So cut out sports drinks, sugar-sweetened drinks and other foods that have a lot of added sugar in them. Beware that low-fat options might have high amounts of added sugar in them so check the food labels.

Remember though that whole fruits and veg that are naturally sweet are good for you. They contain a combination of nutrients, natural sugars, water and fibre that have a range of health benefits. But like any food, they can contribute to weight gain if you have too much of them.

Increase protein

Protein can be a helpful way to lose weight because it makes you feel fuller than carbs and fat do. So if you include a lean source of protein in your meals you may find that you’re not as hungry, and overall you’re not eating quite as much as you were.

And, some studies have suggested a link between eating protein and having less belly fat. For example there’s some evidence to show that higher amounts of protein combined with resistance training increases lean body mass and lowers fat mass (more on exercise below).

Make sure you include protein with each meal. Good sources include chicken breast, tuna, mackerel, salmon, eggs, milk, red lentils, chickpeas, brown bread, nuts and soya.

Remember to go for low-fat and lean sources as some sources of protein can be high in saturated fat. Alternatively, there are lots of protein products on the market now, such as supplements and powders, but make sure you only use them as part of a balanced diet

Exercise – what works best?

I’d really recommend you do HIIT training aka high intensity interval training. This will really get your heart rate up and burn the fat. HIIT basically means that you go all out and give it everything you’ve got for a short burst, followed by a lower intensity exercise or rest – and then repeat.

Cardiovascular exercise is important for weight loss but I’d say that interval training is perhaps the best approach for fat loss – especially belly fat. It’s been suggested that HIIT has an effect on your hormones, particularly ones which are responsible for the process involved in lowering fat from areas such as your belly. It also increases your fitness levels so you’ll notice these benefits too. Intense exercise also speeds up how much energy and fat you burn post exercise.

I’d suggest monitoring your pulse so you can tell when you’re in the fat burning zone. If you’re not sure about how to measure this – find an app or use a wearable (like a Fitbit or similar), or book in for a fitness assessment to properly assess your training zones.

I’d recommend strength (resistance) exercises too. They help maintain your muscle mass and your glucose metabolism (the way your body processes sugar and uses it for fuel), which are important for managing your weight. Resistance training has also been shown to maintain reduced fat mass, and to act on the visceral fat in your abdominal area.

But a word of warning – ‘spot reduction’ – the idea that you can target where you lose fat – is a myth. Doing only ab crunches thinking it will target and lose the fat from your belly won’t work. You need to take a whole body approach, not just focusing on one area of your body.

Putting it all together

For an eight-week trial to see the effect on your belly fat, I’d recommend the following.

  1. Cut down on rice, potatoes, pasta and when you do eat them go for wholegrain (ie brown rice and pasta). There are lots of easy substitutes – courgetti instead of spaghetti for example. Carbs should only make up a quarter of the space on your plate.
  2. Cut out the sweet treats and savoury snacks of chocolate and crisps. I used to eat a lot of chocolate – here’s how I cut down.
  3. Increase your protein to 2g protein per kilo bodyweight, choosing lean meat like chicken and fish, or pulses or soya if you’re veggie. If you’re struggling to get to 2g, consider protein drinks or bars to supplement.
  4. Cut out all alcohol; find out how former Men’s Health senior editor did this.
  5. Do 3–4 HIIT sessions combined with weights/resistance training each week (1 hour per session is enough)

But keeping it up is tough, I know. These are big changes. It’s hard to resist carbs when you crave them and it can often take weeks to break that desire to hit the crisps and chocolate. But, all is not lost. I think coaching can help – this can be in the form of apps and wearables – there are lots available on the market. Knowing how to bounce back from a slip up can also help.

I have no doubt, if you can stick to it for eight weeks, you’ll drop a trouser size from a 38 to a 36 inch!

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health. You’ll receive a personalised lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a healthier, happier you. 

Dr Luke James
Medical Director, UK Insurance at Bupa UK

What would you like us to write about?


Bupa health insurance

Heart icon

Bupa health insurance aims to provide you with the specialist care and support you need, as quickly as possible. Find out how you could benefit.