You might hate the look of your belly, but there's another reason to slim down other than vanity. Carrying excess abdominal fat, particularly visceral fat which surrounds your organs, is associated with increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
If the belly pudge won't budge, despite watching what you eat and exercising, you could be making one of these five mistakes...
See also: Gut health and weight loss: what you need to know
1. You eat inflammation-causing foods
If you want to get rid of stomach flab, cut out processed foods and refined carbs. Eating too many of these foods can cause inflammation, which makes it harder to shift tummy fat.
To reduce your inflammation levels, cut back on packaged foods as well as saturated fats (margarine, pastries, crisps), alcohol, wheat and gluten, and foods that cause your blood sugar levels to spike (sweets, biscuits, pure fruit juice and refined, white carbs).
Natural foods such as fruits (especially berries) vegetables, and whole grains are a good source of antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory properties.
2. Your gut flora isn't healthy
There are trillions of bacteria, known as a microbiota, living inside your gut. The type – and quantity – of different bacteria living in your stomach can affect how many calories you absorb from food, as well as your metabolism.
Lifestyle habits – including stress, taking antibiotics, eating too much sugar and drinking alcohol – can damage our gut bacteria. The best way to feed the good bacteria in your stomach is to eat lots of fibre and prebiotic foods (onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichoke and chicory) and cultured foods which contain beneficial bacteria, such as natural yoghurt, kefir, raw sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. You could also take a prebiotic supplement.
3. You eat the wrong types of fat
In the past, we were told to cut back on fat to lose weight, but new research suggests that it's sugar and refined carbs we need to watch. In fact, eating a certain amount of (healthy) fat helps the body to shift excess pounds.
To reduce your waistline, limit saturated fat (found in meat and dairy) and eat monounsaturated fats (olive oil and avocados) and polyunsaturated fats (mainly omega-3s, found in walnuts, sunflower seeds, and fatty fish), which have anti-inflammatory properties. Just enjoy the healthy fats in moderation - snack on a handful of nuts, not the whole bag.
4. You're not getting enough sleep
A major study of nearly 70,000 women found that those who slept for five hours or less a night were 30% more likely to gain weight, compared to those who got seven hours shut-eye.
Lack of sleep doesn't just cause you to feel grumpy the next day – studies show that inadequate sleep lowers levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite, and increases grehlin, a hormone that controls hunger. Not only do people want to eat more calories after a bad night's sleep, the body craves calorie-dense foods, making it even harder to stick to the healthy eating plan.
5. You're not working out hard enough
To shift stubborn belly fat, you need to increase the intensity of your exercise. Research published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, found that people who followed a high-intensity fitness programme lost more stomach fat than those who stuck to low-intensity exercise.
Try circuit classes or a circuit training DVD at home and change the way you exercise. For example, instead of going for a slow but steady jog, sprint for a minute, then walk for a few minutes, then sprint again. Pushing yourself to exercise harder will burn more calories and shift more belly fat.
6. You need to de-stress
Stress causes the body to release cortisol, which is linked to visceral stomach fat. Whether it is work, money, relationships, or just juggling life's many demands that's making you stressed, you need to find a way to relax. Try deep breathing, exercise (boxercise is a good one!) or listen to a guided relaxation CD.