Originally published on 26 October 2018. Last updated on 20 Oct 2020.
QUESTION: Hello Dr. Neal, I’ve been meaning to thank you for some time now – you’re now officially part of my morning routine. Your content provides inspiration and helps me start the day on the right foot. On to my question: I’m a 47 year old woman with a tendency to gain weight in my upper body. I’m about 5’3” and 128 lbs. I’ve been working with a food coach and functional medicine doctor and quickly learned that “keto-type” diets just don’t work for me. Great lesson that we all need a custom diet that makes sense for us.
So, I’m almost at my ideal weight BUT – I tend to carry weight “up top” – especially my mid-section – and I wonder if I should upgrade my exercise routine so that I focus more on building my lower body (with weights ) and perhaps increase my cardio (which I do too little of) so that I can maybe lose belly fat. How much control I have on changing my body composition? I’m so grateful for your help.”
DR. NEAL: Thank you so much for your kind words and for being a regular listener. I appreciate you.
As we get older, belly fat seems to be ever-present and overstaying its welcome. Well, I don’t know if it was very welcome in the first place. I noticed that once I crossed the big 3-0 birthday milestone, it seemed as though my belly began magically crossing the Mason-Dixon Line — meaning over my belt.
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 595, Episode 710, and Episode 1162 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.
This is the area of the body that most tend to struggle with. When I gain weight, it’s like the floodgates around my belly are wide open. It feels like my body is purposefully sending fat to the belly and nowhere else.
Yet when I lose weight, it’s like those very same floodgates are closed. It’s as if my body tells itself that this belly fat area is off-limits. So it just sticks around longer.
Sadly this is not just a problem that you and I have. It’s very common. In fact, we’re learning that men and women tend to store fat in different areas of the body.
How Does Belly Fat Form?
Before we continue, I'll share a story with you on sedentary lifestyles that are ever present in corporate environments or desk jobs. You know what I'm talking about — jobs where the majority of the day is spent sitting in front of a computer screen.
Listen to Dr. Neal's tips for sitting in front of a computer screen all day on Episode 505 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.
So, a recent college graduate didn’t quite know what to do with his new degree. He resorted to working in the Payroll Department of a small company. This wasn’t his dream job, but it helped pay the bills, so he put up with it.
This meant his days involved sitting at a desk for 8 to 9 hours, staring at time cards trying to decipher people’s terrible penmanship. Then, after that eye strain, he then stared at a computer screen transferring those numbers into payroll software. The job was pretty stressful and it didn’t help that lunch was usually some form of fast food and was often consumed at his desk.
When he got home, he was too tired to exercise. And, exercising before work was not going to happen because he enjoyed his sleep too much. He was skinny as a college student, but after 2 years of working this job, his waist circumference went from 28” to 36”. So, there was definitely some weight gain around the belly.
His total blood cholesterol went from normal to over 220, which means he was at increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Now, he already had an underlying chronic condition, so if some major lifestyle changes weren’t going to be made, then another chronic disease diagnosis was likely on the horizon.
Luckily, changes were made but it definitely took some time, consistency, patience, and persistence before any results were seen.
Oh, and in case you hadn’t already guessed, this person I just described was me.
How do Men Store Fat Differently from Women?
Women tend to store excess fat around their hips. The hips are defined as the widest area above the zone where the glutes meet the hamstrings.
Men, however, tend to store excess fat around the abdomen.
Unfortunately for us guys, storing body fat around the abdomen is more dangerous to our health. We’re learning that the fat stored around the belly behaves differently than the fat stored around the hips.
Belly fat increases our risk for developing heart disease and even some forms of cancer.
Fat stored around the hips, where ladies tend to store it, behaves differently. It doesn’t seem to increase risk for disease.
There are exceptions of course. You might see women with more fat around their waists, and very little around their hips. This is because we’re also learning that where we store fat on our bodies is also a function of our DNA — specifically, how our parents hold on to their body fat. So yes, gender does seem to play a role, but so do other elements of our DNA.
Do We Have Control over Where the Body Stores Fat?
When it comes to where on the body we hold on to fat, we have very little control over this aspect, unfortunately. We can change some of our genetics, like how quickly we burn fat for energy, but for some reason, we can’t seem to change that part of our genetic make-up that determines where on the body we hold on to fat stores.
So, if your parents were more likely to hold fat around the belly, then that’s probably where your body will want to hold on to it. If your parents were more likely to hold fat around their hips, then that’s where your body will probably prefer to hang on to it.
I’ll explain – let’s assume that a person’s genetics says that they will hold on to more fat around the belly button because that’s where their parents’ bodies tended to hold on to fat. As the person lives their life, they may never end up holding on to fat around their abdomen. Why? Well, if they follow a balanced lifestyle and burn the right amount of calories each day, their body has no need to collect fat stores.
But, if the person consumes too many calories and this continues for years, then the body will try and convert those extra calories to fat. And, given this person’s genetics, that fat isn’t going to go to the hips, the arms, or the chest – it’s going to the area around the belly button.
Now, the same goes for losing body fat. Let’s say this same hypothetical person is losing weight. Since their body likes to hold on to fat around the belly button, does that mean their body would like to get rid of the fat around the belly button, too? No, quite the opposite.
Since the body prefers to hold on to fat around the midsection, it will also prefer to hang on to this fat for as long as possible. Isn’t that great news?
Listen, I’m one of these individuals. A while ago, between Oct. 31 and Jan. 1, I gained 8 lbs. Simply put, I put on some holiday weight. Guess where all of the weight went? Right to my belly. When I tried to lose that weight, that was the last part of my body that seemed to want to give up its stores. I feel like I’m still trying to get rid of that last little bit.
Belly Fat Increases with Age
Another piece of the puzzle is that belly fat increases with age. The number of calories we burn at rest starts to slow down.
This is partly a result of the muscle loss that we begin experiencing at this age. Furthermore, many of us have transitioned to our full-time careers which means:
- Most of our days are spent sitting at a desk (fewer calories burned again)
- We have less time to shop for and prepare meals which can translate to consuming more restaurant foods
- There may also be more life stress
The list goes on and on.
This creates a perfect storm of sorts that primes the body to store some of the calories we consume as belly fat. And as mentioned, some of that propensity for belly fat is genetic.
Belly fat is particularly tricky to lose. It's really stubborn for some reason. Sometimes you’ll be doing everything right, only to find that your wristwatch doesn’t fit as well as it did before. That’s because instead of using the fat around the abdomen for fuel, the body decided to use that little bit of fat around the wrist for energy instead. What the heck body?? Again, part of this is genetic.
Diet and exercise, of course, are important. But, something else that we need to consider is… drumroll please… stress.
Since it may be challenging to change our DNA, let’s discuss some ways within our control to deal with this belly fat problem.
How to Get Rid of Belly Fat
Ok, so where does that leave us? Well, there’s no magic to it. When it comes to fat loss, in general, the best things to do are:
Diet – Control Your Portions
As mentioned earlier, you want to create a slight calorie deficit. This will hopefully trick your body into using some of its body fat stores as fuel.
To do this, you need to eat slightly less than you are right now. Don’t make any dramatic changes, but think about small things like consuming half of a dessert instead of the whole thing. Skip 1 soda. Have a ½ cup of rice or pasta instead of a full cup and make up the rest with non-starchy vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables are:
- bell peppers
Basically anything that’s not corn, peas, or potatoes.
How Many Calories Should I Cut to Lose Fat?
This is a smart question that many of you have.
Your calorie reduction need not be drastic. I would say that cutting your calories down by at least 100 but no more than 500 per day would be a good start.
This is where you can get really creative so that you don’t feel deprived. Last week, I mentioned that researchers found that those that deprive themselves of certain foods, often find themselves consuming more of that food once they get their hands on it. So, we have to somehow trick the brain into thinking we’re not missing out on anything even when we’re cutting back on our intake.
I’ll give you some examples: let’s say with lunch, you always have 16 fl. oz. of soda. Your first option would be to switch to diet soda, since most of these contain zero calories. But, let’s say you hate the taste of diet sodas. Instead of replacing the soda with water, which may make you miss the soda and feel deprived, order a 12 fl. oz. soda instead. That alone will probably save you about 50 calories right there and yet you still get to enjoy your favorite drink.
If your goal is cut back by 100 calories each day, you’re already halfway there! Let’s say at dinner, you normally eat 2 cups of pasta (if you want to know about how much 2 cups of anything is, make 2 fists and hold them together… there you go! That’s about 2 cups). Instead of removing the pasta altogether and replacing it with salad or boiled vegetables, have 1 and a half cups of pasta instead. Again, the genius behind this is that you can still eat the foods you like, but your cutting back on the portions, saving you calories.
If you’re into tracking your food intake, I have found the magic formula is to consume about 50% of your daily calories coming from whole grains, 25% from lean protein, and 25% from mostly unsaturated fats.
If you do this consistently, with time, the body will turn to burning off some of that belly fat. If you want to lose fat, you have to force the body to burn it for fuel. Even a little reduction in calories done consistently can lead to fat loss.
Lifestyle Changes for Belly Fat
Get Enough Sleep
Aim for 7-9 uninterrupted hours of sleep most nights.
We’re learning that adequate sleep helps control hunger hormones, and at the same time, may change where the body chooses to store its fat.
Unfortunately, we forget what an important role stress can play when it comes to how we store our excess calories.
Researchers have discovered that when we are under chronic distress (meaning, our stress is continuing unresolved for weeks, months, or years), we are more likely to store our calories as belly fat. Somehow, when we’re under stress, the body prefers to store fat there.
We don’t know why this is, but either way, we need to monitor our stress levels and find ways to effectively cope in order to help us get rid of that belly fat.
When we’re under stress for long periods of time, our bodies release this nasty hormone called cortisol. Cortisol not only lowers the body’s ability to fight off infection, but it increases appetite and tells our body to store more fat around the abdomen when we do eat!
The key here is consistency and time. Have patience and trust the process. One way to easily monitor your progress to see if these tricks actually working is to see how your clothes are fitting. If you realize that your pants start to feel loose, then keep up the great work!
Exercise to Get Rid of Belly Fat
Do Ab Workouts Help Burn Belly Fat?
Training abs is an important part of a balanced workout, but doing this alone will not lead to belly fat loss. What it will do is help those muscles pop once the belly fat starts to shrink down based on the tips above.
If you compare many of the more popular ab workouts, the common theme seems to be incorporating 45-minutes per week of ab-specific moves. That can be broken up into three 15-minute sessions, five 9-minute sessions, or however you choose to do the math. The bottom line here is that performing ab-specific moves regularly and consistently over time will help make those muscles develop. But you have to incorporate those other steps as well.
Don’t lose heart: stay consistent with these tips. It will take patience and persistence. You will need to maintain that calorie deficit for some time in order to start seeing a difference, especially if your activity level doesn’t change.
You don’t have to be perfect. Even if you’re good most of the time, the body will respond. I’ve had to work hard to shrink my belly fat — a few years ago, it wasn’t a pretty sight. But with time and commitment, and using the tips I just shared, I’ve managed to keep it in check.
If you're doing cardio exercise, something you can consider if you haven’t already, is to mix things up with your cardio routine.
If you normally jog for 60 minutes at a modest pace, consider running a mile as fast as you can instead, or perform sets of sprints.
I would also highly recommend incorporating some resistance training into your routine. Why? This is one of the best ways to increase your muscle mass and size.
Listen to Dr. Neal's thoughts on yoga or Pilates as resistance training on Episode 450 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.
Potentially, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn all the time. This is great for preventing excess calories from being stored as body fat.
Also, when you incorporate both cardio and resistance training regularly, you actually change how your body chooses to store its calories. This takes time and you have to be consistent, but we’re learning that as you increase your cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness levels, your body will choose to store the calories you consume not as fat, but as other forms of stored energy.
For example, if you were to imagine 2 versions of your future self: version 1.0 is you not doing any cardio or resistance and version 2.0 is you performing both regularly, we’d find that version 1.0 would be more prone to storing calories as fat. But version 2.0, the one that’s performing resistance training and cardio consistently, is preferring to store its calories in other ways… NOT as body fat.
Aerobic activity (like walking, jogging, swimming, bicycling, etc.) combined with resistance training (yes, yoga and Pilates counts) seems to be the best formula.
Oh, and remember how I mentioned that as we age, we tend to lose muscle? Well, resistance training helps prevent some of that muscle loss.
The Power of HIIT
Mixing up your fitness routine helps to shape the body, and cardiovascular activity is a great idea in this context.
So I want you to consider some High Intensity Interval Training (or, HIIT).
You can also think about trying a program where both cardio and resistance training are combined, like Bootcamp-style workouts or CrossFit. Studies are finding that these forms of high-intensity interval training programs may help reduce body fat help the body use fat as fuel during AND AFTER your workout.
But, in order for them to work, they have to be performed consistently for some time. Think months and years, as opposed to days and weeks. And, like I always say, if you want any hope of sticking to something, you’re probably going to have to enjoy it on some level. Otherwise, you’ll stop.
If you find you don’t like Bootcamp-style workouts of CrossFit, try other high-intensity training methods. And you don’t need to perform High Intensity Interval Training for every single workout. Just sprinkle it in every now and then to mix things up.
A Sample Workout for Sculpting the Body
I’m going to propose a sample weekly workout routine. I would encourage you to discuss this with your doctor to be sure it would suit you and your goals and to see if any adjustments need to be made. Here goes:
- Monday: 45-60 minutes of mild-to-moderate intensity cardio. Think, brisk walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming, rowing – again all performed at a mild-to-moderate intensity. An easy way to know whether you’re performing at a mild-to-moderate intensity is you should be able to talk when performing the workout. It shouldn’t be so difficult that you can’t talk because you’re breathing so hard.
- Tuesday: Full-body resistance workout – consider spending some extra time on legs. Think squats, deadlifts, and lunges.
- Wednesday: 60 minutes of light cardio, like a long walk.
- Thursday: Full-body high-intensity training workout.
- Friday: 60 minutes of light cardio.
- Saturday: Resistance training – could be yoga or pilates as well.
- Sunday: Rest.
Now, this routine is fine for a while, but you’ll want to change it up after 4-6 weeks. Mix up the days, change the length of time you spend performing these workouts, change the types of exercises you perform for different muscle groups, etc.
Variety is important.
If you usually walk for 45 minutes, try jogging for 15 minutes. If you’ve been focusing on legs during your resistance training sessions, give them a rest and work the upper body. You get the idea.
I hope this helps and wish you continued success!
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 595, Episode 710, and Episode 1162 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.