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How to reduce belly fat

Who is it peaking over the rim of your jeans: Understanding belly fat and how to shed it

What strikes us first when seeing pictures of fitness influencers online is a flat stomach, while a small piece of cake we eat inflates our belly up like a balloon. Belly fat is not bad. But it’s important to know the real science behind what are the safe levels of body fat to maintain and what levels of belly fat will cause health problems. In fact, a bit of belly fat is perfectly fine!

Why does our body store fat?

Let’s take a leaf out of our physics textbooks. Energy can’t be created or destroyed. It can only be transformed. The excess energy that we get from food is converted to fat and stored in our body. Imagine a backup reserve like a UPS.

The fat storages work the same way. Our body will take the required energy from these fat reserves when the main supply, that is food, is cut. Imagine a scenario like a famine or alien attack where you are not able to get your food supply stocked up. How will you survive? That’s where the stored body fat helps. It is genetics. Men predominantly store fat in the belly and women store fat in the thighs and hips.

Before explaining why we need to lose belly fat and how we lose it, let’s look at the types of belly fat.

Types of belly fat

The subcutaneous fat is the fat right below the skin layer, the first storage area for our body fat. Once this gets full, fat spills over to deep inside the abdomen and surrounding organs like liver, stomach and intestines, becoming visceral or ectopic fat.

Our body doesn’t prefer higher levels of visceral fat. But as the body fat goes higher, visceral fat goes higher as well and our organs start to disfunction. For example, visceral fat causes insulin resistance, which could lead to PCOD/PCOS & hypothyroidim for women, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.


Credit: BMC Medicine, 'Type 2 diabetes as a disease of ectopic fat?'

Now, how do we lose belly fat?

Spot reduction of belly fat is a myth! We saw that when calories taken in is more than the calories burned, it creates a caloric surplus, leading to gaining of muscles and fat.

The opposite – when calories taken in is less than calories burned – creates a negative energy balance, leading to a loss of muscle and fat. As the overall body fat reduces, the subcutaneous and the visceral fat in your belly fat also reduces. But how can we create this deficit?

Doing 1000 crunches or running on the treadmill is not going to help. The caloric deficit has to be primarily driven through nutrition. What you do in the kitchen matters the most.


How to achieve caloric deficit or negative energy balance

1. Caloric deficit: Assuming that your current calorie intake is helping you to maintain your weight (called maintenance calories), create a small deficit, say 15-20%, from your current food intake. You don’t have to count every calorie, but you need to quantify and track your food intake as it will help you understand how much you are eating in a day. This calculator can give you an estimate of your theoretical maintenance calories and what deficit you can create to lose fat.

Link to the TDEE Calculator

2. Cut down processed food: You don’t have to starve yourself while trying to lose weight. Eating more whole foods high in lean protein (fish, chicken, and beans) and fiber (grains, fruits and vegetables) make you feel full and satisfied, which over time also reduces your attraction to processed foods. This also reduces your calorie intake as energy density of these foods is less. So focus on consuming a diet centred around minimally-processed foods.

3. Eat slowly, until satisfied.  Eating slowly gives your body time to recognise that you’re full and your gut time to process and digest the food. Relishing your food, savouring every serving gives your mind an impression of satisfaction that is key to feeling full.

4. Eat to 80% full. Eating to 80 percent full means stopping when feeling content but not stuffed, and can lead to a calorie deficit over time for weight loss. While you don’t have to look for this precise level, develop the habit of paying attention to appetite cues and eating a little less than your usual.

5. Physical activity: Energy burnt through non exercise activities (NEAT) contributes  to 10-15% of caloric expenditure, so stay active throughout the day – increase your step counts and standing time. It’s also very important to do resistance training  at least 2-3 hours a week while staying on caloric deficit so that you don’t lose muscle mass during this process.

When it comes to belly fat, it’s important to focus on healthy lifestyle habits rather than appearance. Let’s celebrate and appreciate all body types and encourage healthy habits that promote overall wellbeing.

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