Here is something that A LOT of skinny fat women struggle with and ask me about: “How do I lose my belly fat?”
If you’re trying to lose the stubborn belly fat then keep reading.
You’ve done the dieting. You’re eating mostly healthy maybe a small piece of chocolate once a week nothing too indulgent. You’re moving and exercising multiple days a week from aerobic classes to power yoga to intense boot camp classes you’re doing it all. And yet the belly fat does not budge.
Looking naked in the mirror you may have loose fat all over your stomach or just excess body fat sitting right in the middle.
How do you deal with this stubborn belly fat that doesn’t go away even though you feel like you’re doing everything right? This is what I’m going to cover in this article.
What Is Considered Skinny Fat?
There is a difference between women who are fat versus women who are skinny fat. Both types of women have a high percentage of body fat of at least 25% and above but a woman who is skinny fat doesn’t look the part.
In fact, if you’re skinny fat you probably have people complimenting your body saying you’re not fat you look great in clothes! But you feel different once the clothes are off. You see a bulge here and there or you’re able to grab your tummy pooch and you don’t like it.
And internally if you are skinny fat you’re putting yourself at risk for diseases that are normally associated with women who are overweight and obese population even if you don’t look it. How’s that for confusion?
You’re considered skinny fat if you have a normal body mass index (BMI) but have a high body fat percentage of usually 30% or above.
To figure out both your BMI and body fat use the resources to figure it out,
- Calculate your BMI use this calculator by the National Institute of Health.
To get your body fat measured there are several different methods but the most commonly used ones are below,
- Bodyfat calipers – use this guide to get an accurate measurement. The accuracy of this method is highly dependent on the user and being consistent with measuring the exact same area every time.
- DEXA scan – these scan are pretty popular and can be found in stand alone facilities and in hospitals as well.
(results from a DEXA scan)
I do not recommend you use handheld devices or your bathroom scale with digital fat measurement capabilities. The reason being that they are highly variable based on your hydration level and their measurements can deviate by up to 5%. If DEXA scans are not convenient for you then do calipers.
Another option is to measure your waist at the height of your navel not your narrowest part of your waist. As your body changes the narrowest part of your waist will shift so that you’re not measuring consistently at the same place every time. Using your navel as a reference point helps to make sure you’re taking measurements in the same place.
Is Your Belly Fat For Real?
We’ve been living with our belly for as far as we can remember that it’s become normal for us and hard to get rid of. You know that diet is important when it comes to losing belly fat so you’ve switched to a healthier diet and started exercising. But even a healthy diet can cause belly fat. Let me explain.
Everyone has bacteria in their guts and our guts are unique to you, your diet, your genetics, and your environment. Unfortunately certain foods even healthy foods can cause the bacteria to be extremely happy and when that happens they produce a lot of gas that causes our belly to expand.
Maybe the only times we notice our bellies is after a meal or at the end of the day and we gripe that this stubborn belly fat isn’t going anywhere. What about at the beginning of the day?
Do you know notice that your belly size grows towards the end even if you haven’t eaten that much all day? That is a sign of bloat.
(example of a bloated belly. Credit to Tiffany Brien)
You get bloat when the foods you’re eating are not properly digested by your stomach acids. When the food arrives at your small intestine the bacteria helps you out to further digest your food. By doing so they produce gas that causes your stomach to expand. Certain foods can cause more gas and others cause less but that can vary from person to person.
You can see if your diet is heavy in foods called FODMAPS that can cause excess bloating and gas by reading High and Low FODMAP Diet Foods To Eat.
Here is how you can figure out whether you’re sensitive to FODMAP foods,
- Every morning at the same time take a measurement of your waist at navel height and scale weight.
(measure waist at navel NOT at the narrowest part of your waist as shown in image)
- Record everything you eat and drink. You can either do a food diary with pen and paper or notepad on your food or use an app like My Fitness Pal to record your diet.
- At the end of the day repeat your measurements. Do this for at least a week and even better for two weeks.
Looking back comparing your measurements and diet you can start to see a trend and see how your diet impacts your waist measurements.
If your ‘stubborn belly fat’ is caused by bloat you can easily solve it through changing your diet. When you avoid foods that cause bloat and add a digestive enzyme supplement to your diet I’ve seen clients lose inches in a few weeks without changing how much they eat or their exercise routine.
You 7 Step Plan To Eliminate Your Skinny Fat Belly
The belly is often the very last place women lose fat and it’s frustrating! Almost 100% of my clients have some request to lose inches around their waist or to lose their belly, and just have a flatter stomach. By following this plan below you will also lose inches yourself.
Step 1 – Know Your Maintenance Calories
There are plenty of calorie calculators online that will tell you how many calories your body needs to maintain your weight with all the exercise you’re doing. This calculation is known as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
Using these types of calculators comes with a couple of drawbacks,
- None are 100% accurate. The science of figuring out your metabolism is not 100% accurate because your body doesn’t exist in a closed box. At best it is a close enough estimate using different equations to predict your calorie burn. To figure out your exact number would require a few weeks of accurately tracking your eating and taking measurements every week. This way you can get as close to possible in knowing the exact calories your body needs and go from there versus relying on a calculator.
- It is based on your inputs. If your weight, height, activity level etc is off so will the calorie prediction. Also most calculators are more accurate for women who are below 30% bodyfat. When your bodyfat exceeds 30% the calculations become increasingly inaccurate. If you are above 30% bodyfat use the equation below instead and the appropriate activity multiplier,
(formula borrowed from The Women’s Book by Lyle McDonald)
(multiplier chart to calculate TDEE for maintenance calories)
Now that you have a good idea of how many calories your body burns every day when you exercise (TDEE) let’s move on to showing you how to adjust the calories so that you lose your belly fat.
Step 2 – Take A Cut From Your Maintenance Calories
Losing your belly fat means that you MUST be eating fewer calories than your body needs consistently over a period of time. We call this eating in a caloric deficit.
The key word here is CONSISTENTLY. Every week your calorie average must be in a deficit otherwise you won’t see any results.
There are different percentages of deficits you can take but to maintain and do it consistently over the long term I recommend starting out with a minimum of 15% deficit. Small deficits like this are easy to start with, you won’t get too hungry, it’s easy to maintain, and preserves lean muscle mass.
However, if your body fat is higher than 25% than a 15% deficit is going to be slow and you won’t notice many changes. In this case, I would do a maximum deficit of 25%.
For example if you find out that you need to eat 2000 calories to maintain your weight while exercising 3 times a week then below are your calories to lose your belly based on the different deficits,
Remember that it’s better to start with a small deficit and increase it if you want faster progress versus the other way around. You want to see progress and you want to be consistently at a deficit to lose your belly fat.
Step 3 – What To Eat On Your Diet
There’s a lot of information on foods that will prevent, burn, and eliminate belly fat. What they all have in common is that the foods are unprocessed, whole foods. Foods in its most natural state are optimal for your health and for fat loss.
Now what do I mean by unprocessed whole foods? These foods fall into the following guidelines,
- They do not have a nutrition label on them. A nutrition label means that they can be possibly processed and the ingredients have gone through multiple stages for the final product.
- They don’t have an expiration date. An expiration date means that the food has preservatives to prevent them from going bad and other additives to preserve their flavors and enhance coloring.
- The foods are in their natural state. This means that they are ready to eat after being picked from the farm. For instance, vegetables and fruits and pasture raised animals versus buying frozen foods.
Because it’s almost impossible for you to eat only unprocessed foods and we like to indulge in unhealthy foods I recommend following an 80/20 rule. Get 80% of your calories from healthy, unprocessed, natural foods, and 20% of your calories from your favorite foods.
When you’re on a caloric deficit you may feel deprived and it can suck for a long time before you finally eliminate your belly forever. By following the 80/20 rule with eating it will help you to increase adherence so that you stick with your caloric deficit long enough to see results.
The 80/20 rule for a 2000 caloric deficit diet means that 1600 of your calories come from healthy, unprocessed foods and 400 calories from your favorite foods.
Now what about macros like protein, fat, and carbs? Your macro ratios come in second priority after getting your calories right.
When it comes to body recomposition – where you change your fat and lean muscle mass – there is a hierarchy of priorities. Get them in the wrong order and you will get frustrated, not see results, and be overly stressed. Below is the hierarchy of priorities when it comes to body recomposition with calories being MOST IMPORTANT and supplements being LEAST IMPORTANT,
(pyramid of importance for body recomposition)
You will see that it’s important to get your calories straight first. If your numbers are off it doesn’t matter what macro ratios – protein, fat, carbs – you’re eating you won’t see results. You will lose belly fat when you’re eating in a caloric deficit no matter the macro ratio.
For optimal results it’s best to eat a sufficient amount of protein starting at 0.8 g/lb of body weight. If you’re not sure what this means and how to calculate all of this I wrote a 70 page Ultimate Guide that you can check out or download that will explain all the details to you.
Eating at a caloric deficit and a sufficient amount of protein is the 2 most important numbers to get straight. Fat and carbs can be varied based on your eating preferences. Their ratios don’t matter as much.
There has been multiple studies done where protein has remained the same but the fat and carbs differ to see if one macro affects fat loss more. Scientists have pulled these studies together to do a comparison and have found that you when you compare fat loss in a high/low fat diet and a high/low carb diet there isn’t any significant differences.
Step 4 – Start Lifting Weights
Lifting weights is optional but optimal and here’s why. When you’re trying to lose belly fat you have two options to help your body burn off the excess calories – eat fewer calories (be in a caloric deficit) OR burn more calories.
How many calories your body burns is based on your weight, height, activities, and lean body mass. The more lean muscle mass you have the higher your resting burn rate. This is different from the calories you burn from cardio which I will be explaining in the next section.
How would you like to burn more calories automatically all day long even while sitting and sleeping? You can achieve this by maintaining and building more muscle through strength training. Any regular strength training where it’s challenging has the potential to help you build muscle which increases your daily calorie burn.
Ideally if you’re not lifting weights at all start with 2X a week lifting for about 45 minutes a day.
Focus on big compound movements to get most out of your workouts and make sure you follow the Rules For Lifting so that you get results. Below is a sample beginner lifting workout hitting all the compound movements,
Strength training is definitely optional and you can lose your belly with only cutting calories. When it comes to reducing your calories you will eventually hit a wall where you cannot cut any more calories because you need energy, you’re hungry, and you need to function everyday but you’ve stopped seeing results. This is where instead of eating less you need to burn more and having more muscles helps to increase your daily calorie burn.
Step 5 – Get Your Heartrate Up
If you could lose your belly faster by adding one more thing to your exercise routine would you spend an additional 20-30 minutes 2X on it?
Yes, it’s doing your cardio. Cardio helps you burn extra calories and expedite fat loss.
Here’s the trick to maximizing your calorie burn and still being efficient with your time – do the most inefficient cardio you can find. That means whatever cardio you probably hate the most because it’s hard and that will burn the most calories.
When a new exercise is difficult it always takes extra energy to complete it. Once it becomes easy you no longer burn as much. This is why when you’re doing cardio for more than 60 minutes at a time you’re not burning as much calories as when you first started doing 15 minutes and it was harder.
You want to maximize your calorie burn while being time efficient.
How you achieve this is to make sure you’re hitting a level 7 or 8. This means that on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being you’re sitting on the couch and 10 being you’re giving your 110% you want to do your cardio on a level 7 or 8. This means you cannot have a conversation while doing cardio and you cannot complete a full sentence before running out of breath. If you can have a conversation while doing cardio you need to crank up the intensity.
Below are multiple ways you can achieve maximum calorie burn while being time efficient,
- Dial up the intensity of your cardio. Currently at level 6 running on the treadmill? Bump it to level 8 or make a steeper incline.
- Switch to a different type of cardio. Treadmill running is easy? Get yourself on the rower or the Stairmaster and put in the same amount of time.
- Swap from steady state to HIIT training. The length of time you can doing HIIT training will be much shorter compared to steady state because of the intensity level but you have many more options with interval training and the types of equipment you use with it.
- Quit the cardio machine and do bodyweight training. Using bodyweight exercises as your cardio option can be pretty intense because you’re doing a variety of different movements. Below is a sample bodyweight circuit you can follow,
Step 6 – Monitor Your Stress Levels
The #1 sign of having excess cortisol in your system is belly fat. If you’re following steps 1 through 5 consistently and not seeing any belly fat reduction then it’s probably because you’re stressed out everyday.
Stress induced belly fat is real. Multiple studies here and here have shown that when you don’t have the right coping mechanisms to deal with daily stress it can lead to excess abdominal fat. Women who have belly fat are more vulnerable to the effects of stress compared with women who have fat that is evenly distributed.
How you perceive and deal with stress determines if your brain releases ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ hormones to deal with the situation. When you have long stretches of daily stress or feel that the situations you’re dealing with day to day is hopeless and out of your control your brain releases epinephrine, the ‘flight’ hormone. This stress response pathway or releasing epinephrine leads to enhanced fat creation in the deep abdominal region1.
This is how having high levels of stress hormone cortisol in your blood stream can directly impact belly fat storage.
Below are the top ways to help you reduce your stress level,
- Change your perception. Not feeling like you have control of your life can easily be the #1 reason you feel stressed. Instead of focusing on how your day to day is out of control and that you have no control over your schedule think about what you can control and take action. No matter how small the action or how small the impact it will have on your day taking action gives you back that feeling of control.
- Get 7 to 8 hours sleep. Enough sleep resets your adrenal glands that produce cortisol. When your adrenal glands are chronically overproducing cortisol because you’re always stressed getting enough sleep helps it to do a complete reset. This reset helps it to produce the right amount of cortisol necessary for your body. If you’re having a hard time getting enough sleep every night then find out how you can sleep better so you lose more bodyfat. Sleep helps you better cope with stress, helps with focus so you can get more done more and be more productive with your time.
- Start pampering yourself. We are often the last person to get any kind of self-care because we’re busy taking care of others. When was the last time you spent some time on yourself doing an activity you loved? Re-connect and devote some time to doing what you enjoy that helps you to relax.
- Write down your thoughts. I find that stress happens most often when we’re no longer in the present moment. We’re thinking about the past or thinking of the million other things we need to be doing besides what we’re doing now. This makes us feel of overwhelmed, feel like we’re falling behind, like we’re not enough or doing enough which creates mental stress.
Step 7 – Repeat Step 1 and Step 2
Sooner or later you will hit a point where you’ll stop losing belly fat and you’ll stop seeing changes as well. Most women at this point start to panic, increase their cardio, cut out more foods, and stress. This makes it worse and it’s unnecessary.
Instead let’s take a calm and measured approach and use data to tell you what the next steps are.
Pull up your calorie tracker like My Fitness Pal and your weekly calendar.
First, have you been consistent with your caloric deficit? Have you been eating at your caloric deficit every week and you’ve been diligent about tracking everything?
If not, then you need to get better at tracking and being more accurate at it. Don’t worry about exercising more often before you improve on tracking your food.
Next, if you have been consistent with tracking your food and your measurements are not changing wait one week and take measurements again before changing anything. For my clients I always wait one week because it can be around the time of the month, maybe they just got back from a work trip and they’re bloated, or they’re holding on to excess water. For any of those reasons your measurements could be inaccurate.
When you’ve waited a week and still your measurements are the same. At this point you have 2 options,
- Reduce your calories further.
- Increase your caloric burn.
Reducing your calories is a good choice when you’ve decided to only take a small deficit like 10% to 15% at the beginning. This gives you more room to eat fewer calories down the line. In this case you can take an additional reduction to start burning fat again but I caution against reducing more than 150 calories at a time.
Everytime you make a reduction you will be hungry. Give your body at least 2 weeks to adjust to the hunger before you feel like you cannot live off of that calorie reduction and bump up your calories again. This why a small reduction works better than a large reduction. You want to always feel like you’re making progress and adding calories back into your diet will feel like you’re taking a step back.
If you’re coming against 1200 calories then I highly suggest you increase your calorie burn instead of reducing more calories. Below are a couple of ways you can easily increase your calorie burn,
- Lengthen your cardio workouts by 10 minutes or increase the cardio intensity you’re doing.
- Switch to a different form of cardio while keeping the amount of time the same.
- Add another strength training day to your schedule.
- Find a way to increase your NEAT activity everyday like going for walks, using a standing desk, taking the stairs instead of the elevator. If you simply cannot devote any more time to the gym this tip will help burn some extra calories daily.
In this post I went over the 7-step plan to lose your belly fat including how to take the correct measurements so you can see accurately whether you're losing fat or not.
No more haphazardly trying one tactic to the next to lose the extra inches and feeling frustrated because you don't know if what you're doing works or not. Losing your belly fat is a slow journey but by following my 7-step plan in my post you will get there.
If you want to move beyond just losing your belly fat and want to build a strong fit body you should also read my Ultimate Guide To Go From Skinny Fat To Fit. In this guide you'll learn,
- Why you're struggling to lose the stubborn fat no matter how much you exercise or diet
- What to do when you've hit a weight-loss plateau and 3 simple tips to start burning fat again
- Should you focus on losing fat or building muscle first plus answers to 10 other questions about going from skinny fat to fit
You can download the guide using the box below and get my Lose Your Belly Fat template to track all of your progress in one place so you never have to figure out if you've missed a step that's holding you back from a flatter belly: