Why is belly fat so hard to lose in adults?
Most adults have the wrong idea—or no idea at all—on how to go about losing belly fat.
But first, know that I used to struggle with belly fat too. Check out these photos of me taken back in 2015:
It took me quite a while—nearly three years, in fact—to finally understand how to lose belly fat (or body fat in general).
The result? Check out these photos of me taken in 2018:
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s easy.
To be honest, losing belly fat IS hard.
But having the wrong idea—or no idea at all—on how to go about losing belly fat just makes it so much harder.
And the reason it feels so much harder is because you’re putting in A LOT of effort, but seeing ZERO results.
In other words, you’re just spinning your wheels.
And here are the FIVE most common wrong ideas that people have about losing belly fat, that makes it so hard:
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Wrong Idea #1: You must do TONS of abdominal exercises (e.g. sit-ups, crunches, torso twists, planks, etc.) to “target” tummy fat.
This is one of those myths that refuse to die, thanks to fitness models with rock-hard abs who are paid to promote fancy ab exercises or gadgets on TV and in magazines.
The truth is: Abdominal exercises have no effect on abdominal fat at all.
Don’t believe me?
A study conducted on 24 healthy, sedentary adults aged 18 to 40 found that six weeks of abdominal exercise training alone failed to reduce abdominal fat and other measures of body composition.
Another study done on 40 obese women found that abdominal resistance training besides diet did not reduce abdominal fat thickness compared to diet alone in overweight or obese women.
This is not to say that ab training is useless. Just know that by doing lots of abdominal exercises, you’re just strengthening and improving the muscular endurance of your abs — not “targeting” tummy fat.
So, sorry mate, your 500 sit-ups-a-day isn’t going to cut it. 😉
Wrong Idea #2: You must do LOTS of cardio / HIIT / spinning / zumba / (INSERT NAME OF TRENDING WORKOUT) to “burn off” belly fat
Look around you and you’ll see most people relying on exercise to lose belly fat…
…thinking they can burn off that cheeseburger by grinding out an hour of cardio.
…thinking they can get lean by “sweating it out” doing “insane” workouts.
…thinking they can out-exercise their poor eating habits.
No matter how much they exercise, they can’t seem to get rid of the flubber.
And the funny thing about this is: people are doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.
(This is interesting to me because while most people know they need to “make a change,” they’re doing the exact opposite!).
The truth is: Diet has a far greater impact on fat loss than exercise.
Don’t get me wrong. Exercise does help in fat loss by increasing your energy expenditure. But think about it:
It takes 20–30 minutes of exercise just to burn 200–300 calories. Yet it only takes a double cheeseburger and a strawberry milkshake to eat 1,000 calories back — not an uncommon feat for people who like to “reward” themselves after a “good” workout.
That’s why exercising is pointless (at least for fat loss) if your diet is out-of-control.
However, when you focus on nailing down your diet first, you’ll see a HUGE difference in your fat loss results.
That said, people tend to focus on the wrong things in their diet. Which brings me to the next point…
Wrong Idea #3: You must eat “CLEAN” (whatever that means)
Look. You don’t need to “eat clean” to lose belly fat.
Just look at Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University.
Over the course of 10 weeks, he limited himself to less than 1,800 calories a day eating a “dirty” junk diet of chips, nutty bars, donuts, cakes, cookies, and sugary cereals.
And guess what happened?
He lost 27 pounds while dropping his body fat from 33.4% to 24.9%!
How is that possible? You wonder.
You see, here’s the truth:
The key to losing fat/weight is to maintain a calorie (energy) deficit — i.e. consume, on average, fewer calories than your body expends — over a meaningful length of time.
A man of Haub’s size would normally consume about 2,600 calories daily. But he limited himself to only 1,800 calories a day.
Simply put, all he did was follow the basic principle of fat loss: He consumed significantly fewer calories than he burned.
That said…I’m not saying you should follow Mark Haub’s example by eating 100% junk food. That’s silly.
What I’m saying is:
If you’re overeating calories, you’re not going to lose belly fat, even if you’re eating “clean,” “healthy,” “whole 30,” or whatever.
Wrong Idea #4: You must avoid / cut out FATS from your diet — i.e. go on a low-fat diet
Thanks to the fat-phobic era of the 80s and 90s, many people still perceive “low-fat” and “fat-free” food products as healthy options.
But here’s the kicker:
Research has shown that healthy options ironically lead to indulgent eating, because of a mental trap called—that is, giving yourself permission to be “bad” because you’ve been “good.”
Unfortunately, going low-fat / fat-free isn’t necessarily “good.” Because low-fat or fat-free doesn’t mean low-calorie or calorie-free.
Here’s the deal: You can limit your fat intake if that’s what you prefer. But if you mindlessly eat excessive calories from low-fat / nonfat foods that are high in carbs and sugar, “bad” things will happen for sure:
- With plenty of fuel (glucose) from carbs, your body HARDLY needs to burn fat stores for energy, i.e. no fat loss.
- As glucose is the body’s preferred fuel, and there’s plenty of it to go around, any traces of fat you do ingest gets stored away immediately.
- Excess glucose that can’t be stored in the body will be converted into fatty acids and stored as fat.
So much for avoiding fat.
Wrong Idea #5: You must avoid / cut out CARBS / SUGAR from your diet — i.e. go on a low-carb or ketogenic diet
Surprised? I can understand why.
Diet “experts” have been blaming carbs for causing fat gain over the last decade, based on the fact that eating carbs triggers a spike in our insulin levels.
Since insulin is a hormone that hinders fat loss and promotes fat storage, they “conclude” that eating carbs makes us fat by causing our body to store more and burn less fat, due to higher insulin levels.
On the surface, it sounds like it makes sense, but here’s the problem:
These so-called experts “forgot” to mention that:
- Eating protein also raises insulin levels — why don’t they demonize protein as well?
- Your body doesn’t even need insulin to store fat—there are other hormones and processes to get this job done
Also, know this:
When you eat more calories than you burn, i.e. get in a calorie surplus, your body has nowhere to store the excess calories except as body fat.
So, while it’s true that insulin promotes fat storage, it can’t produce fat out of thin air—the fat has to first come from SOMEWHERE. Where do you think the fat comes from?
From surplus calories, of course.
Look. You can avoid carbs all you want, but if you “accidentally” eat too much fat and protein, those extra calories will either:
- Be turned into usable energy, giving your body NO REASON to tap into your jiggly fat stores; or
- Go straight to your belly, love handles, and man-boob, etc.
What’s the lesson here?
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again:
The key to losing belly fat is to maintain a calorie (energy) deficit — i.e. consume, on average, fewer calories than your body expends — over a meaningful length of time.
Sure, by reducing carb intake, you’re reducing overall calorie intake.
Sure, by reducing fat intake, you’re reducing overall calorie intake.
And sure, by eating “clean”—i.e. mostly whole foods—you’re also likely reducing overall calorie intake.
If, despite doing all the above, you’re still not in a calorie deficit, then I’m telling you now: your belly fat is here to stay. 🙂
EDIT / ADD-ON:
There’s one more confounding factor I must mention, that makes losing belly fat so hard.
See, when you create an energy deficit at the start of the diet, you’ll certainly lose fat initially. But after a while, what happens?
Your fat loss starts to slow down… and eventually stalls, leaving you tired, hungry, and miserable. (Sounds familiar?)
So what’s going on?
It turns out that when you try to lose fat by cutting calories, something interesting happens:
Your body ADAPTS to the lower calories.
Caloric restriction puts your body through a series of metabolic, hormonal, and behavioral adaptations that reduces your total energy output, in a bid to ‘conserve’ energy.
In other words, if you eat fewer calories than you burn, your body gradually adapts by burning fewer calories.
What does this mean for you?
It means that the caloric deficit that you create at the start of the diet diminishes over time, until there’s no longer a caloric deficit!
This explains why fat loss eventually slows down and stops. You paid the entry fee, but aren’t sure what to do when you hit a roadblock.
Here’s the truth: Not everyone is in a favorable situation to lose fat.
If you find it hard to even maintain weight on low calories (1,200–1,800 calories), it means that your metabolism has dropped to an unhealthy level due to chronic dieting.
In this situation, most people either continue dieting hopelessly, or cut their calories further to semi-starvation levels, hoping that they’ll miraculously break through their plateau.
By doing so, their metabolic rates slow down further and energy levels take a nosedive, leaving them weak, hungry, and miserable.
Guess what? A sluggish metabolism—thus, low energy output—coupled with intense hunger and cravings is a recipe for disaster.
When they finally give in to hunger, any sudden increase in food intake creates a HUGE caloric surplus relative to their low energy output, thereby causing rapid fat regain.
As a result, these poor souls often end up getting FATTER than when they started dieting — a phenomenon I call “the fat rebound effect.”
Listen carefully: If you’re “dieting to maintain and starving to lose”, you shouldn’t even be dieting at all.
Instead, you should spend the next 3–6 months recovering and ramping up your sluggish metabolism by eating at maintenance level.
Just one thing:
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