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. It took me quite a while—nearly three years, in fact—to finally understand how to lose belly fat (or body fat in general).
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 that 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:
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
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?
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 trigger 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 exercising harder, you may be increasing your calorie expenditure.
Sure, by avoiding carbs, you may be reducing your calorie intake.
Sure, by avoiding fats, you may also be reducing your calorie intake.
And sure, by eating “clean”—i.e. mostly whole foods—you may also end up reducing your 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.
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 3–4 months recovering and ramping up your sluggish metabolism by eating at maintenance level.
To express my heartfelt gratitude, I’ve decided to add this final section to address a lingering question asked by many of you:
“So, how do I break the fat loss plateau, get out of this metabolic rut, and start losing fat again?”
By now, you should know that your body HATES dieting, i.e. keeping a calorie deficit.
But to lose fat, that’s what you need to do. No questions about it.
However, from your own experience, you know that losing weight isn’t the only effect of prolonged dieting. You’ll also experience hunger, fatigue, irritability, mood swings, muscle loss, and poor performance (both in the weight room as well as the bedroom).
Sure, you can try to minimize these side effects by keeping your calorie deficit gentle and moderate, eating enough protein, doing regular resistance training, and going easy on your cardio / HIIT.
But eventually, you’re going to get stuck in a rut, even if you do everything right.
And this is all thanks to your metabolism slowing down in response to dieting, causing diminishing returns where the longer you stay on a diet, the harder it gets to lose fat.
This metabolic slowdown is due to the reduction in body weight, as well as adaptive thermogenesis (described in earlier), where your body reduces its energy output at a faster rate than your weight loss.
So, how do you break out of this rut, continue to lose fat, and get to where you want to be?
Well, if you’re expecting the solution to involve some kind of highly complex meal plan or some kind of advanced “biohack” that are little known to the general population, you’re going to be disappointed.
In fact, the solution is pretty unsexy. So unsexy that most people never thought about it.
You ready for this?
The solution is simply this: Break down your fat loss journey into stages.
By breaking your fat loss attempt into stages, you can:
- Avoid fat loss plateaus and eventually get to your goal weight
- Retain more muscle mass
- Get to eat more calories on average
- Reduce unnecessary misery
But don’t just take my word for it though. There’s even research evidence to back this approach of dieting in stages.
So, how might this approach look like for you?
Let’s say you have 45 lbs (or ~20 kg) of fat to lose to get lean and look good.
Most people would want to lose all 45 lbs in one go. But this isn’t the smartest thing to do.
Instead, you should aim to lose about 20 lbs over the course of 3-4 months—this is Stage 1.
Then, you take a break from dieting for 1-2 months.
During this diet break, you can eat roughly at, or even slightly above maintenance level.
Now, ain’t that wonderful? Hang on though. A diet break isn’t meant to be your free pass to indulge and overeat. Doing so will undo all the good work you’ve done in Stage 1
“But how do I know if I’m eating within this ballpark maintenance range?” You ask.
It’s simple: Let your body weight be your guardrail/guidepost.
I recommend measuring your body weight every week during your diet break. And then use the data trend to let you know if you’ve been eating too much or too little.
For some of you lucky ones, your weight might remain stable during this diet break. For most of us though (myself included), you can—and should—expect your weight to creep up by about 3-5 lbs (~1-2 kgs).
[Pro tip: To get reliable and consistent readings, weigh yourself using a digital scale on the same day each week, first thing in the morning after waking up and emptying your bladder, before you ingest anything.]
Don’t view this as a regression though.
By raising your calorie intake back to normal and regaining a little weight, you’re positioning yourself to let your body and metabolism recover, and get a much-needed rest/break from watching/tracking your food portions/intake, plus all the other side effects mentioned earlier.
So, if anything, treat the diet break as a strategic move to take one step back now so that you can move two steps forward later.
Suppose you do regain 5 lbs during this diet break, you’ll now have 45 – 20 + 5 = 30 lbs left to lose.
In Stage 2, you can aim to lose another 20 lbs over 3-4 months.
Then, you take another break for 1-2 months, during which you regain 5 lbs again.
Then, you make your final descent to lose that final 15 lbs over 2-3 months.
Here’s how the entire process might look like if someone is starting at 200 lbs:
As you can see, the whole journey might take about 10 to 15 months, which is probably way longer than what most people want or expect.
This is also another reason why belly fat is so hard to lose in adults—most adults simply aren’t patient enough, i.e. they want to see results FAST.
Rapid fat loss sounds wonderful, but it comes at a high price—and the price to pay is a more restrictive diet that’s harder to sustain, plus all the nasty side effects.
Dieting in stages, however, breaks down your lofty endeavor into more manageable chunks over a longer period of time. This way, you’ll be able to bust through plateaus and reach your goal weight looking better, feeling better, and (best part) eating more food.
Now, for an important note: Obviously, the numbers I’ve used above to outline the process are generic and theoretical.
Everyone is different, and every dietary approach needs to be individualized. I can’t promise that you will get the same outcomes as shown above. That’ll be remiss of me.
So, please understand that your actual plan of attack, your actual experience, and final results will be DIFFERENT.
Your journey may take shorter or longer, and require fewer or more stages, depending on how much weight you need to lose.
For some, it’s going to be easier. For others, it’s going to be harder.
For most though, it’s going to be an iterative process of learning and fine-tuning over a few attempts (i.e. years) to get the hang of it.
Whatever the case, the point of this section is to help you better understand this dieting approach so that you can apply it in your own way, for your own needs, based on your own abilities.
Also, don’t expect your fat loss progress to be smooth and linear as shown in the chart. It’s going to be messy, throwing all sorts of false signals that might make you panic and make the wrong decisions.
Stay the course, detach your emotions from the weekly scale readings, and focus on doing what’s necessary, in terms of your eating habits and behaviors, one day at a time.
On a final note, I now challenge you to apply this new approach in your own fat loss journey.
If you’ve already been dieting for more than 4 months. Stop. Take a 3-to-4-month break as a “reset.” Wipe the slate clean. And then start afresh on a new journey using the approach I’ve outlined above, customized to suit YOU.
I wish you all the best. And may your belly fat be no longer with you someday.
Credit: Charles Loo