The most common mistakes people make when trying to lose belly fat

Ally Head
·12-min read
Photo credit: Issy Muir - Getty Images
Photo credit: Issy Muir - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

Struggling with lower stomach fat? You're not alone. Search for 'how to lose lower belly fat' is up 40% on Google, meaning many are on the hunt for a sensible yet effective way to tone their tum.

Having a strong core is essential for pretty much everything - posture, day-to-day activities, and injury prevention. While some fitness motivation may be aesthetic, making sure you're working out to build a strong, happy, injury-free body for life is important, too.

Fun fact: it turns out there's a reason lower stomach fat is the most stubborn to shift. The fat cells that gather around your lower abdomen are known as 'beta fat' cells, which are notoriously hard to change, according to Dr Luke James from Bupa UK.

But - question - can you really target specific areas for weight loss? "While we can target weight loss in general through diet and lifestyle changes, it is unrealistic to think that we can target particular areas for fat loss," explains nutritionist Clarissa Lenherr.

Personal trainer Emily Ricketts agrees, sharing that no matter how hard you train your abdominal muscles, you can’t spot reduce belly fat. "In fact, you can’t spot reduce fat full stop," she adds. "Weight loss is something that will occur through your body being in an energy deficit (consuming fewer calories than it’s burning), and as such, you can’t make that exclusive to just one area of you body."

They both recommend focusing on eating a well-balanced diet, moving regularly, investing in stress management and concentrating on sleep quality to set yourself up for all-round good health. Then, the weight loss will follow.

But what to do if you're exercising regularly and maintaining a balanced diet, but still failing to get rid of any lower stomach fat? We got some pointers from Dr James and Clarissa, and Emily. They've got some interesting professional opinions about how to reduce your lower stomach fat, plus some explanations as to where you might be going wrong.

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Photo credit: -

You're not getting enough sleep

From scrolling through social media to having a late-night coffee, there are plenty of ways we unknowingly keep ourselves awake at night. Aside from feeling tired and groggy the next day, not getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night can affect weight loss, explains Dr Luke.

"When we’re lacking in sleep, our body’s hormones get thrown off balance which can impact our hunger levels the next day. We all have two hormones that affect our appetite: ghrelin and leptin. When we don’t get enough sleep, our ghrelin levels (the hormone that makes us feel hungry) rise, and our leptin levels (the hormone that makes us feel full) drop. This means that when we’re awake, we tend to eat more but feel less satisfied. Try going to bed a little earlier than usual to avoid this imbalance and remember to remove any distractions that might prevent you from nodding off," he continues.

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You’re doing the wrong type of workout

Listene up here. "Only doing abdominal-focused workouts, like crunches, won’t help you banish the bulge," Luke emphasises Belly fat is simply where your body stores energy, so you need to take a whole-body approach to tackle it, he reckons. Tru HIIT training (high intensity interval training) - he says it's "a great way to burn fat and get your heart rate up", with squats, burpees and treadmill sprints all being examples of moves to try.

Emily agrees - saying that, in its simplest form, training abs alone, won’t get you abs. "Focus on the staple movements and progressively getting stronger at them over time. I’m talking about your planks, crunches, twists, holds and v-ups."

She also points out that compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, overhead press and pull-ups are all effective at activating and working your core. Her final two cents on it? "Moving your body in a way that feels good, and keeps you moving consistently." Hear, hear.

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Photo credit: -

You’re consuming too much sugar

"If your diet consists of lots of sports drinks, sugar-sweetened drinks like fizzy coca cola and flavoured waters, or sugary foods like chocolate and cakes, it will make losing weight harder," Dr Luke reckons. He also explains that while whole fruits and vegetables are undoubtedly good for you, they can also sometimes cause weight gain if you eat too much, as they have high levels of natural sugars in them. "Low-fat food options might have high amounts of added sugar in there too, so make sure to check the food label", he warns.

Plus, cutting back on the amount of simple carbohydrates you eat, like pasta and bread, and substituting for healthier alternatives, like courgetti, could help with weight loss. "It won’t be easy, but by dropping your overall carbohydrate intake (not eradicating carbs completely), you will have the best chance of tackling your belly fat," shares Dr Luke.

However, Emily has a slightly different take on this one. She explains that, while Dr Luke isn't wrong in saying that, nutritionally speaking, the above foods aren't as nutritionally-dense, they won't ultimately affect weight loss if you're still maintaining a calorie deficit. "I’m a big believer that you don’t need to cut out foods or become consumed with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels when it comes to your nutrition," she shares.

"When it comes to fat loss in its simplest form, the energy deficit you are creating is what will make that happen. It’s not about demonising food groups or cutting out everything you love, it’s about mastering moderation and balance and aiming to consume within that energy deficit to achieve slow and sustainable fat loss."

See - you don't have to cut out the foods you love. It's all about moderation.

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Photo credit: -

You're not eating enough protein

Protein is great for fat loss, according to Dr Luke. "It helps build and preserve lean muscle tissue and can increase the amount of calories you burn. It’s also a great source of energy that helps you feel fuller for longer, so you’re less tempted to snack."

Good sources include:

  • chicken breast

  • turkey

  • tuna

  • eggs

  • Greek yoghurt

  • milk

  • tofu

  • chickpeas.

Remember, though: do opt for the lean sources of protein where possible, as some can be deceptively high in saturated fat, he advises. Need some inspiration for low carb, high protein meals? Look no further.

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Photo credit: -

You’re feeling stressed or anxious

Feeling stressed can wreak havoc on your body, according to Dr Luke. "It can cause our body to produce the steroid hormone cortisol, which can make you crave sugary foods that provide instant energy and pleasure. Short-term bursts of cortisol are necessary to help us cope with immediate danger, but our body will also release this hormone if we’re feeling stressed or anxious. When our cortisol levels are high for a long amount of time, it can increase the amount of fat you hold in your belly," explains Dr Luke.

So, what does Clarissa think? She agrees, adding that by calming your stress levels, you are much less likely to crave energy dense foods.

"Try and notice if you reach for foods when you are stressed," she advises. "Spot this habit and ask yourself, “Am I actually hungry, or am I eating for another reason, like stress, boredom or excitement?”. If your answer is the latter, try a non-food related habit, instead. Why not go for a walk, call a friend or make a cup of tea? Simple.

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You’re expecting a quick fix

Dr Luke explains that it's easy to become impatient and frustrated when you’re trying to lose weight and haven’t seen the results yet. "But be realistic," he encourages. "You won’t see results overnight. Your brain’s wiring plays a huge part in resisting changes in lifestyle, and it takes time to establish new habits – up to 12 weeks. Stick with it for at least eight weeks and you should notice a change."

Emily agrees, further emphasising that progress takes time. Disappointed that your progress looks a little different to someone elses? Remember, one of the biggest misconceptions when trying to lose lower stomach fat is that a flat stomach, or ab definition of any kind, looks the same on everyone.

"Major spoiler - they don’t! I’d try to avoid chasing the perfect set of abs and instead focus on striving towards a strong core - whatever that looks and feels like for you. Remember, even if we all trained the same, we wouldn’t all look the same!," she points out.

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You’re not tracking your progress

Another important point from Dr Luke. While every person is different and what weight loss plan works for them will be different, tracking your progress can serve as an encouraging reminder that what you are doing is working.

"There are some great apps and wearable tech devices available that make it easier to stick to your plan. They can help you monitor your goals, your food intake and the calories burned during exercise. If these aren’t an option, write down a meal and exercise plan. This will help you stick to your goals and remain focussed," he explains.

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You’re crash-dieting

"Crash diets (aka, dramatically cutting down how much you eat) might help you to lose a few pounds at first, but they’re hard to sustain and won’t help you keep the weight off. It might seem like a quick and easy option, but eating too few calories can actually do more harm than good. If your calorie intake dips too low, your body could go into starvation mode. This will slow down your metabolism, making it harder for your body to lose weight. Make sensible, healthy changes to your lifestyle that you can stick to and avoid the fad diets," Dr Luke shares.

Emily couldn't agree more, adding that short term solutions rarely yield long term results. "Instead of chasing the quick fixes and falling down the crash diet crater, focus on building a lifestyle. One that makes you feel good! Change that mindset to focus on building a body that’ll last you a lifetime, not one that’s only for the next 6 weeks." Solid advice.

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You’re doing too much

Your body needs a healthy balance of exercise and rest. And did you know? Doing too much prevents the body from shifting excess fat according to Dr Luke, aka, has the reverse result that you're after. "Exercising without rest can impact our levels of the steroid hormone cortisol and cause an increase of stubborn fat stored in the belly. Not allowing your body to recover can increase the risk of injury too, so make sure you factor in rest days to your exercise plan."

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You haven't got the right exercise balance

With all the different tips out there, it can be tricky to understand exactly which exercises work the best. "HIIT is great for fat burning and will get your heart rate up, but I’d also recommend including strength and resistance exercises too," shares Dr Luke. "Try lifting weights, using resistance bands or using the weight machines at the gym as these will increase your metabolism to help with weight loss, and increase your muscle strength. It’s important to mix-up your whole-body workouts so you don’t get bored."

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You’ve lost motivation

Now this one we can all relate too. "One of the hardest parts of losing weight is maintaining the lifestyle changes you’ve made," Dr Luke shares. Sure, it’s difficult to stay motivated all the time, especially if you’ve slipped up along the way. But he encourages you not to let this affect your end goal. "If you’re feeling particularly unmotivated, ask a friend to join you for your workout and then afterwards cook something healthy for dinner together," he suggests.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

You're drinking too much alcohol

As a qualified nutritionist, this is one Clarissa sees all the time. "While having a glass of red wine has been shown to have some health benefits, it is widely known that consuming excess alcohol can impact your health and your waistline."

Why? Well, when you consume alcohol, the liver burns alcohol instead of fat, which over a long period of time can lead to fat accumulation. "Additionally, alcohol can increase your appetite, potentially leading to an increased consumption of calories. Try to stay below the 14 units of alcohol per week that is recommended by the NHS and opt for a few nights’ alcohol free," she recommends.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Your hormones are out of whack

Did you know? Hormones play a role in fat distribution. "A reduction in estrogen for women and testosterone for men, particularly as we age, can trigger the redistribution of fat to the stomach," Clarissa explains.

Additionally, certain hormonal imbalances such as PCOS can increase the risk of insulin resistance which can lead to an increased production of fat cells.Eating a diet that is high in refined carbohydrates, sugars and alcohol can increase our insulin levels which promotes fat storage, increase the risk of fatty liver, all resulting in a higher incidence of weight gain around the stomach.If you are concerned about hormonal imbalances, book an appointment to speak to your GP.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

You're not paying attention to your food

Scrolling through your feed over a breakfast bowl? Eating your lunch in front of your desk? Dinner with the TV on? If this sounds familiar, there is a risk you are not paying attention to your food.

"It can take up to 20 minutes for signals to reach our brains to tell us we are full, explains Clarissa. "If we are distracted, we can miss these signals and end up over eating which can lead to weight gain." It's the small things.

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