What is the Best Way to Reduce Fat in Specific Areas of the Body?
This post originally appeared on Quora and has been featured in Thought Catalog. I’m posting it here because through many question merges, what seems like it should be my top answer in the question, has been relegated to some distant page there and I am constantly struggling to find it to share on other answers.
Quora’s search function is also incredibly exhausting to deal with. I’m hoping it’s easier to find here and share in the future. It is by no means an exhaustive or authoritative post on losing fat but it’s a quick summary of the many questions I’ve answered on Quora about fat/weight loss over the years.
tldr; You can’t spot reduce.
You have to reduce ‘total body fat’ as a consideration as well.
Yes working out at a gym could help, so could a lot of other things, and other things still could be setting your progress back.
There are a lot of smart people on Quora, so I’m always amazed when I see spot reduction questions still come up with some frequency but the truth remains that you can’t spot reduce fat.
The only way to really guarantee spot reduction would be as someone mentioned liposuction and even then you’re not guaranteeing that the fat deposits in that area won’t return (and they often do without lifestyle changes including diet and exercise).
Overall there is really only one way to accomplish this.
Reduce the amount of energy you take in and increase the amount of energy you expend so that you are in some kind of negative energy balance.
Unfortunately there are hundreds, probably thousands of ways to do that successfully and many many people have this giant misconception that this ONLY translates into calorie counting. Notice that I don’t use ‘eat less calories and expend more calories.’ A calorie isn’t a calorie, and there are many ways to manipulate energy intake and expenditure above and beyond tracking labels and exercise machine readouts (though these may work for some people). There are also many individualized approaches that may need to occur depending on the person.
Fat loss has many complex contributions like gut flora intestinal health, basal metabolism influences (more lean tissue = higher metabolism for instance, or the hormones that moderate metabolism), the thermic effect of eating, level of activity, sleep patterns, distress levels, nutrition levels, etc…etc… that all work interdependently to contribute to a desired result.
I have my own theories as to what are generally the most effective ways so I’ll give you the Cole’s Note’s version of that:
Reducing Energy In:
- Eat more lean forms of protein with every meal (this doesn’t have to be animal meat necessarily or all the time but that is an easy source). Protein has the highest thermic effect on digestion (i.e. it requires significantly more energy to digest than carbohydrates or fat)
- Eat slowly (It takes 20 minutes for your hormones to signal to your brain that you’re full so try chopsticks, eat from smaller plates/bowls, try chewing your food more, eat at the table rather than in front of a TV/computer, don’t eat distracted, etc…etc…)
- Eat more vegetables (6+ servings a day, 1 serving is about the size of your fist — try eating one each from white, green, red, orange/yellow and purple/blue sources). I’d place a slight emphasis on green leafy vegetables, but also cruciferous vegetables, allium vegetables, nightshade vegetables, root vegetables, etc…etc… This is also a great way to increase Fiber intake, which should be at least 25 grams a day, probably ideally closer to 35. Fiber contributes no energy to your diet, but improves GI health and potentially nutrient absorption.
- Eat starchy carbohydrates (legumes, fruit, grains, some root veggies etc…) sparingly unless you’re quite active. Even then ideally keep their consumption to days that you exercise more so than days you don’t. The more exercise you participate in, and the leaner your frame, the more you can probably consume and I’d argue that this is the most easily manipulated component to figure out depending on the person. Carb cycling (and/or ketogenic cycling) is incredibly effective as well; Though perhaps a more advanced strategy overall.
- Eat reasonable amounts of healthy fats daily, (particularly omega-3’s in relation to omega-6’s; The typical North American has a ratio of 1:20, when it should be less than 1:4, and ideally as close to 1:1 as you can muster. Monounsaturated fats like olives, olive oil, and macadamia nuts are a good bet in reasonable quantities as well. Also eat some small quantities of good saturated fats like that from coconut, grass-fed meats/butter, and I like to recommend some nuts [but not necessarily nut-oils]; I opt for roughly a small handful every day personally. Shoot for a balance of each major type of fat overall realizing that most foods have at least some fat in them.) — I go for a serving (which is actually about 1 TBSP for oils) with pretty much every meal, but that depends on your frequency of eating.
- Think of food as a spectrum of choice and choose the most whole options when you can. Meaning eating baked potatoes is better than mashed potatoes is better than baked chips is better than fried chips is better than french fries. Likewise, cous cous or bulgar is better than whole wheat bread is better than white bread. Trying to restrict foods is a bad strategy, instead change your thinking and try to eat more of high spectrum foods overall (this will naturally displace worse spectrum foods without the psychological problems associated with restrictive eating).
- Give yourself some breathing room, the perfect diet doesn’t exist and will be the bane of your existence. Allow yourself 10% foods and you’ll achieve absolutely fantastic/remarkable results. 20% and you’ll probably get there just a little more slowly. 30% and you start running into really slow progress but works for the odd holiday here or there. The higher your consistency, the quicker and more significant the result, but nobody is perfect and trying to be 100% is probably a significant reason people do not achieve success in this regard — it’s a psychological hurdle for a lot of people.
- Drink non-caloric beverage 95% of the time (removing soda, pop, macchiatos, latte’s and other sugary drinks is huge) — my one exception is the relatively low-to-moderate consumption of dairy if you can tolerate it. Again also some breathing room…
- Eat as whole, minimally processed foods as you can muster. Very little is unprocessed these days, even if the apples are cleaned when you buy them, that’s processing. Make it into apple sauce and you have something that is more energy dense, but it’s probably added sugars/fats that tend to be the major problem (particularly when both are added in high quantities). Reduce sugar and eliminate entirely any processed trans-fat consumption (some trans-fats are naturally produced in some animal products and might not be so bad).
- Rather than focus on what you ‘shouldn’t eat’ look at the above and focus on what you ‘should’ eat. Doing that will often easily eliminate simples sugars, liquid calories, and processed foods from your diet. If you ate a lean protein, a couple servings of vegetables, with some healthy fats (i.e. from the cooking oil, in the form of a nut or in the lean protein itself) at most meals, you’d be ahead of the game. Maybe a serving of a whole starchy carbohydrate (which is smaller than you think, about a cupped handful in most cases — think rice, potato, quinoa, etc…) from time to time depending on the person.
- Make changes one at a time, monitor/measure how it affects you, learn from that experience — THEN… make a new change. Trying to eliminate 30 different foods from your diet while introducing 15 new ones at the same time is a surefire way to fail.
Increasing Energy Out:
- Start Strength Training 2–4 times a week (lean mass is more metabolic, plus the recovery period is metabolically boosting) with an emphasis on quality compound movement patterns. This boosts lean mass, increasing basal/resting metabolism.
- Start Doing some form of Cardiovascular Conditioning or Energy System Development (either right after strength training sessions or on the days in between — sometimes for recovery sake (longer/slower aerobic work), sometimes just to be inefficient and make your body work hard to recover) 2–4 times a week. This burns energy, and also can maintain muscle mass.
- Work on mobility/flexibility most days even if it’s only 10–15 minutes (a movement routine like Tai Chi for instance or yoga is a decent place to start, though I get a little more specific personally). Good movement enables the above two components to be enhanced.
- Have fun physically as often as you can!
Gut Flora Considerations (May or may not be a factor for you, the science is young):
- Consider eating some fermented foods with regularity, I opt for a little every day personally — foods like kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt, and other fermented veggies/fruits. It’s important that you don’t confuse pickled with fermented, many foods like this found in grocery stores have been stripped of their raw good bacterial properties through pasteurization. Look for raw, unpasteurized versions, or make it at home yourself.
- Yogurt is often advertised for a certain good probiotic bacteria, but opt for plain to avoid added sugars found in all flavoured types of yogurt. Also this may limit your exposure to only one of a few good bacteria.
- More isn’t always better if you’re looking at a probiotic supplement, but considering supplements that have reasonably high potency it’s a good place to start.
- Some of the research indicates that gut flora considerations seem to affect women statistically more than men. Effect of Lactobacillus rhamnosus CGMCC1.3724 supp… [Br J Nutr. 2014]
- Sleep 7–9 hours a night, depending on activity levels. The more physically active you are, you may find you need more sleep. This isn’t necessarily a golden rule, but lack of sleep is heavily correlated to fat gains.
- Also consider sleep quality. An overlooked component of sleeping, if you’re getting enough sleep, it could be that the quality isn’t there. Reducing alcohol, caffeine, light exposure, etc… before bed can often make a significant impact in this regard.
- First understand that stress can be positive (Eustress) or negative (distress) and that you’re generally seeking a good balance between the two. Often we label distress as stress and eustress as a stimulus, I’ll try not to use the two interchangeably here, as it can become confusing.
- Stress can also be chronic (more problematic) or acute. Acute bouts of stress (like exercise or the occasionally public speaking engagement) yield an adaptation response when you are allowed a recovery period. Chronic stress tends to be more distressing elevating glucocorticoids for extended periods of time (which is heavily associated with all kinds of health problems, including obesity).
- There are two sides of the autonomic nervous system; Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. Think of sympathetic as the gas pedal and parasympathetic as the brake. Sympathetic tends to be more closely associated with distress and parasympathetic tends to be more closely associated with eustress but not exclusively (it’s more complicated than I’m trying to portray it). Most people in the modern world tend to be more sympathetic dominant due to high levels of chronic distress and should engage in more acute parasympathetic activities like deep breathing, meditation, heat therapy, stretching, etc… to counterbalance large amounts of life distressors. You’re looking for a bit of a Yin and Yang situation where you have balance to the system.
- Many people do not know how to manage stress effectively, I believe mostly because it’s hard to quantify. I’m going to give you a simple metric you can track if you’re interested: Resting Heart Rate. This is highly correlated to levels of distress or eustress in the body, or parasympathetic tone vs sympathetic tone. Resting heart rate, is your heart rate immediately upon waking, before any stimulants. So checking your heart rate throughout the day, isn’t very useful, in this context. Ideally you should shoot for around 60 beats per minute or so at waking. Once you achieve this fairly balanced HR point, you keep tracking it, looking for inconsistencies where too much sympathetic stress might give you a heart rate of 80 BPM. Or a significantly parasympathetic drop might yield a 44 BPM. Those days typically warrant engaging in activities that encourage the opposite pattern. Basically you’re looking to maintain a relative equilibrium.
- You might also be able to identify and utilize other biological triggers/clues, things like headaches, anxiety attacks, foggy thinking, etc… but it’s been my experience that getting to this point means you’re beyond management and are now experiencing the consequences.
- Many people live more predominantly in a fight or flight state, brought on by heavy financial, occupational, and family commitments generally speaking (but also others). Chronic exposure is heavily correlated with fat gain, and can hinder fat loss, so it helps to develop management strategies. Luckily many of these strategies are already listed above, things like exercise, better nutrition, more/better sleep all contribute to more effectively managing stress. Meditation/mindfulness and developing other emotional intelligence skills are additional strategies that I have yet to mention.
And most of all be patient. Small changes, add up over time. Overhauling a diet typically fails in the long-term, even if you find success in the short-term. A lot of people typically gain more fat back when they crash diet for short periods of time. It’s really important to consider lifestyle changes overall. If you don’t, you risk relapse.
If all of that combined above doesn’t get a ‘flat tummy’ then you have some tweaking to do and I highly recommend finding a mentor or coach who can work with you. Most people need feedback and although the tips above are sound, adhering to them may not always be as easy or as detailed as you personally need to achieve your objective. There are a lot of different tweaks someone can make over time to hit this objective and I simply cannot list all of them.
Fat loss exercise for example is really about inefficiency. Lots of people exercise and go through the motions, but not in a way that is effective for this objective. They do activities they are already good at without changing how they eat and without challenging their own ability and so they stay where they are for a long time. This is great if you’re at a maintenance stage, but I’ll take it based on the question, this is not the case.
There are also some links between ‘belly’ fat and cortisol levels, but without a blood test that’s really an arbitrary idea. Many assume if you have a lot of belly fat it’s automatically cortisol’s fault, and that might not be the case. The human endocrine system is incredibly complex, so there are many contributing factors. It could be that another hormone that keeps cortisol in check is actually the problem (like testosterone for instance).
There is a lot of interrelated components of various hormones that provide balance to the system. It could be that your diet is low in something and that’s causing a bad hormonal response. It could be that your diet is high in something else that is causing a negative hormonal response. It could be sleep, environment, or work stress. Exercise is also a stress, you can overdo it and keep the belly fat on as a result! Without formal assessment and some kind of diagnostic tool it is always difficult to say for certain, but generally speaking you need to tweak, measure, learn, then tweak again, measure, learn.
This again, in my eyes, makes mentorship even more critical. Working with someone who has seen and can assess your situation through experience is invaluable and speeds the process up exponentially. You can do it on your own, but statistically speaking, self-directed fat loss programs are 3–5x less likely to succeed.
It could be something as simple as sleeping more or something as complex as gradually overhauling your diet and exercise regime, along with social/relationship and significant environmental changes. The key that overhaul is also that it happens at a rate that is viable, slow continuous change. The important thing is really to get started and the easiest thing to do resembles the scientific method, pick something to change, change it, then monitor progress and learn how that change affected you. If it affected you positively, keep doing it, if you get a negative effect or not change, try something else. Gradually layer small changes over each other. Get objective feedback from someone too.
I feel I shouldn’t need to be Captain Obvious and mention this in my answer, but it’s come up enough times in the comments that it is obviously worth mentioning.
I should be incredibly clear that my answer assumes a relatively ‘healthy’ person. It assumes that any metabolic or hormonal issue is only the direct result of lifestyle and not a pre-existing pathology. Most of the time this is actually the case, you don’t gain weight because you are insulin resistant, you gain weight and become insulin resistant. There are a variety of hormonal issues that are the result of weight gain and not the other way around.
This is opposed to weight gain brought on by an actual medical condition like hypothyroidism, or cushing’s syndrome. Though obesity itself is now labelled as a pathological medical condition, these other conditions are different and affect a small percentage of the population.
People have left comments about potential hormone imbalance issues that affect weight gain and/or loss, etc…etc…
Many hormones certainly do play a role in the management of metabolism and thus fat management. As indicated, many are actually brought about by weight gain itself, while others are pathological in nature due to a disorder/disease/syndrome/ailment/etc… that you SHOULD SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION FOR.
However, focusing your attention on hormones (and especially encouraging others to focus on) themselves is NOT AN ACTIONABLE WAY for a person can lose belly fat. You can’t deliberately change only your thyroid hormone levels without medication, though exercise and diet can certainly help modulate it.
Hormones are a marker, or a potential tracking mechanism you could use to gauge your progress in certain instances. They are not themselves, a way to lose belly fat (unless you have some kind of known pathology and a viable treatment is the use of hormones).
Please make two considerations before leaving a comment specific to that domain:
- Your hormones are out of whack because of lifestyle choices (the majority of people, probably 9 out of 10 of you) and making better lifestyle choices will lead to better overall hormone and metabolic management.
- You have a pathological disorder that is affecting your weight management (probably less than 1 out of 10 people), that requires medical intervention, usually for a specific hormone or a group of hormones.
There should be a clear distinction between the two. If you’ve tried many or all the actionable steps above, executed very well on them and nothing budges, please see your doctor and get a full blood panel done. You may require medical attention.
I will caution against self-diagnoses, which in the era of Google is increasingly common. You should not necessarily assume that your problem is pathological in nature, unless there are obvious signs/symptoms, a lifestyle intervention doesn’t seem to work, and until you can get an accurate medical diagnosis. The placebo effect is extremely powerful and could itself hinder fat loss success.
I don’t think anyone should assume that this is a definitive paper on the topic of losing belly fat. I’ve certainly missed things and learn about new things all the time. As I indicated above, it’s the cole’s notes version.