Not only is the term misleading, but trying to target train your "belly" is a futile effort in your pursuit of getting "abs".

By Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD
December 04, 2019
Frances Mocnik/Getty Images

I cringe every time I see a product or headline that makes claims about miraculously burning belly fat. You may not want to hear this, but I'm going to tell it to you straight anyway: There is no magic bullet to "melt away" belly fat. As a matter of fact, I believe putting such an emphasis on belly fat is doing everyone a huge disservice. Not only does it perpetuate the rumors that certain foods, exercises, or drugs will miraculously make you look like a model, but it also makes you feel like there's something wrong with your own belly if it's not currently what you'd call "flat".

I'm here to tell you that there's nothing wrong with you. There's everything wrong with this "belly fat"-obsessed culture.

First of all, what is belly fat exactly?

The fat that accumulates in your midsection is known as visceral fat. This is the fat that is deep in your abdomen and surrounds important organs, like the liver, stomach, and intestines. In contrast, subcutaneous fat is the pinchable fat that lies right below the skin, typically on the thighs, butt, and, yes, also your belly area.

While it's unlikely that all fat around your belly the "bad" kind of visceral fat, it can be difficult to know from just looking. The difference between subcutaneous and visceral fat can only be seen with an MRI or CT scan, but, in general, people who carry weight around their mid-sections tend to have more visceral fat, whereas those who have more fat around their lower-body tend to have more subcutaneous fat.

From the outside, it's nearly impossible to tell how much of each type of fat you have. Two measurements are used in the clinical setting to assess visceral fat—waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio. Ideally, women should have a waist circumference of fewer than 35 inches and a waist-to-hip ratio (which you get by dividing hip circumference by waist circumference) of less than 0.8, according to the World Health Organization. Numbers that are greater than these standards may indicate a higher percentage of visceral fat. (Related: Why Body Recomposition Is the New Weight Loss)

Although it seems a bit crazy that such a simple measurement could be a gold standard for measuring central obesity, there is research that shows it's a better indicator of life expectancy than BMI. Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) admits that BMI isn't a perfect tool either, so understand that no one metric is the end all be all for measuring health. Because of this, doctors often look for several cardiometabolic risk factors, such as high triglycerides, elevated waist-to-hip ratio, and increased blood pressure to determine your health status.

What are the dangers of belly fat?

The reason I hate the term "belly fat" is because it puts so much emphasis on aesthetics rather than what it really means for your health. The truth is that having too much visceral fat actually has some serious health implications. As a matter of fact, a recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association observed more than 500,000 adults and found that women who carried more weight from fat in their abdominal area had a 10 to 20 percent greater risk of heart attack than women who carried fat evenly throughout their body.

Visceral fat is located near the portal vein in the abdomen and carries blood from the intestinal area to the liver. This vein's location has resulted in something the medical community calls the "portal theory", which suggests that an abundance of visceral fat exposes the liver to fatty acids and pro-inflammatory markers. In turn, this exposure promotes the development of insulin resistance and blood lipids, which are both linked with higher LDL (bad) cholesterol and increased risk for pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes. In simpler terms, more visceral fat means a higher risk of heart conditions and metabolic diseases.

To prevent these health risks, most healthcare professionals recommend losing weight, but there's one big problem...

Can you target belly fat?

Quite simply, no. You can't strategically lose weight around just your belly (or any part of the body for that matter). Why? In large part, genetics. Everyone's body is different, and the way you gain and lose weight is going to be different from someone else's.

Researchers have sought to prove this point. One study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that even after six weeks of intense ab workouts, participants still didn't reduce their belly fat. However, they did strengthen the ab muscles underneath the subcutaneous fat, but there was one thing missing in order to see the subcutaneous belly fat reduction: nutrition. Successfully reducing both subcutaneous and visceral belly fat comes down to a combination of good nutrition and exercise in order to shed the fat on top of the muscle. What this all translates to is overall weight loss—this is the only way you can achieve the "belly fat" reduction you're after because, well, you would have reduced fat in all other parts of your body at the same time. (This "Ultimate Plan to Lose Belly Fat" shares a diet and exercise combo that can help you get there.)

Are there such things as belly fat burning foods?

I hate to burst another bubble, but there aren't any foods that miraculously burn calories or melt away fat. There is a long-standing myth that eating certain foods, like celery juicegingergreen tea, cayenne pepper (the list goes on), will cause your body to target and burn belly fat. This just simply isn't true. (However, spicy foods might be the secret to a longer life.)

That said, there is limited research that shows how certain foods interact with metabolism, but the claims that these foods burn fat, and specifically belly fat, is blown way out of proportion. For example, green tea contains EGCG, a compound that is believed to promote fat oxidation, or using fat as a fuel source. Truth be told, one study found that drinking three cups of green tea in combination with a reduction in calories may result in weight loss, but the study did not touch upon belly fat, specifically.

Research on capsaicin (the compound found in hot peppers) shows that it may speed up your metabolism, but most studies use a huge, inedible and unrealistic amount of cayenne pepper in one serving. What's more, another study actually used a reasonable amount (about 1/2 teaspoon) of cayenne pepper found that it only alters metabolism ever so slightly, resulting in burning about 10 calories. So definitely not enough to magically shed pounds around your stomach.

So, what should you do about belly fat, if anything?

Listen, I get it, you might not like some extra padding around your stomach, and I'm all about making positive lifestyle changes. So, rather than looking in the mirror and being miserable with what you see, why not try some of these tactics that have nothing to do with aesthetics.

  • Focus less on how you look and more on how you feel. Rather than getting hung up on how your skinny jeans fit, think about how you feel in your skin. If you have plenty of energy and love your body for what it can do for you, then you're doing something right. (Related: This Influencer Wants You to Know You're So Much More Than What You See In the Mirror)
  • Think about your health, rather than your weight. Belly fat can be dangerous, so it's not something you should entirely dismiss. If blood markers like your cholesterol or triglycerides are high or you have aches and pains from carrying extra weight, it may be time for a lifestyle change. While trying to lose weight, focus on the journey to a healthier you, rather than the numbers on the scale or your waist measurement. Practice good nutrition and exercise because it makes you feel good.
  • Reduce the "belly fat" noise. Think about who you choose to follow on social media or what sites and publications you tend to read. If you follow influencers or read articles that constantly talk about flat abs or detoxes, it's time to hit 'unfollow'.
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