Twelve proven ways to lose weight and shift belly fat

Science-backed diet and exercise tips that work

Losing weight is hard enough, but belly fat can be particularly hard to shift. Here are 12 science-backed ways to drop the pounds and inches from your midsection...

See also: Why belly fat is different to other types of body fat

See also: Gut health and weight loss: what you need to know

1. Cut Calories, but not too much
The best way to lose weight is to cut calories and do more exercise – nothing new there. But be careful. If you cut your calorie intake too low, you're likely to damage your metabolism, which will make it harder for your body to burn calories.

One study found that people who ate 1,100 calories per day slowed their metabolic rate more than twice as much as those who ate 1,500 calories per day over four consecutive days.

Worse, this drop in metabolism may continue after you start eating normally again – which means you'll burn fewer calories than before you started the diet. No wonder people who lose weight on crash diets tend to put it all back on again.

2. Eat more fibre
Fibre expands in your tummy and slows the rate at which your stomach empties, which helps to keep you feeling fuller for longer. Add more soluble fibre (such as oats, flaxseeds, avocados, legumes, Brussels sprouts and blackberries) to your diet and it may also help reduce the number of calories that your body absorbs from food.

A diet high is soluble fibre is also associated with lower levels of visceral fat (the dangerous kind that sits around your organs) and reduced belly circumference.

Upping your daily soluble fibre intake by just 10 grams is enough to lower fat gain around the midsection by 3.7% over five years, according to one study.

3. Drink protein shakes
Most people don't get enough protein in their diet, yet studies show it can boost your metabolism, keep you feeling full, and even help to shed stubborn belly fat.

Eating lean chicken, eggs and tuna is a good way to get more protein, or consider including protein shakes as part of your overall calorie intake. Not only are protein shakes an easy way to get more protein, they've also been shown to be effective at reducing belly fat as part of a weight loss diet.

4. Make sure you get enough sleep
Many studies have found a link between lack of sleep and obesity. One or two night's disturbed rest isn't going to make you pile on the pounds, but if you regularly don't get seven or eight hours of sleep a night, it can contribute to weight gain.

When you are sleep deprived, your body produces a hormone called ghrelin, which stimulates appetite. Not only that, studies show that sleep deprived people are more likely to choose calorie-dense foods – which is why that chocolate muffin is so hard to resist when you're tired.

5. Take a probiotic supplement
Recent studies have found a link between the quality of the bacteria in our gut and weight. People who are overweight or obese are known to have a different composition of gut bacteria than those with a healthy BMI.

Strains of probiotics that have been shown to be particularly effective at reducing belly fat include Lactobacillus fermentum, Lactobacillus amylovorus, and Lactobacillus gasseri.

In addition to taking a probiotic, try increasing your fibre intake and eating probiotic foods, such as yogurt, kefir, tempeh, kimchi and pickles.

6. Walk for 30 minutes each day
There's no point doing endless sit-ups if you don't do enough exercise to burn fat. Cardio exercise, such as jogging, cycling, and aerobics not only burns calories but is also effective at toning your midsection.

Most studies suggest doing 30-40 minutes of cardio exercise per day, which could be a brisk walk with the dog or digging the garden.

Wearing a fitness tracking device is a great way to see how many calories you burn and the number of steps you take. Some trackers also measures your heart rate – such as the Fitbit Charge - and will tell you when you're in the fat-burning zone.

7. Switch to whole-grain carbs
Experts recommend cutting out refined carbs (like white bread, pasta and rice) and sugar in order to lose weight.

A study published in the 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who increased their whole-grain consumption did not develop more visceral, subcutaneous belly fat – unlike those who increased their intake of refined carbohydrates.

There's another good reason to cut back on refined carbs. When you eat high GI foods, your blood sugar levels spike and your body releases cortisol, which is linked to excess belly fat.

8. Keep moving
Studies show that sitting for prolonged periods of time is just as bad for your health as smoking. Not only does sitting cause your abdominal muscles to become weak, it also leads to weight gain. Make an effort to stand and walk around for a few minutes every hour. To improve your core strength try sitting on fitness ball while you watch TV. Even when you sit still on a fitness ball, your muscles will be working to maintain your balance.

9. Eat a tablespoon of vinegar every day
Research suggests that eating a tablespoon of vinegar every day could help fight belly fat. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that obese people who consumed a tablespoon of vinegar every day for two months decreased their levels of visceral body fat. Just make sure it's in a low-fat salad dressing and not sprinkled on chips!

10. Eat more calcium
Eating too much saturated fat (found in hard cheese and meat) is bad news for your belly. A study published in the journal Diabetes in 2014 found that overconsuming saturated fat increases abdominal visceral fat – more than those who ate the same amount of calories in polyunsaturated fat.

While you might want to cut back or switch to half-fat cheese, make sure you're getting enough calcium. Studies show that when your body doesn't have enough calcium it starts to store more body fat. Experts suggest eating at least 700mg of calcium per day.

11. Find ways to de-stress
The link between stress and obesity is well known. When the body is stressed it releases the hormone adrenaline and cortisol as part of the 'fight or flight response.' Cortisol is particularly bad for weight gain, as it triggers fat to be stored around the belly, where it's easily available to be used as energy. In addition, stress can slow the metabolism, which makes it even harder to lose weight.

To make matters worse, studies show that people are more likely to crave energy-dense foods when they're feeling stressed or anxious. If you can't get to a tai chi class, you can always buy a DVD - like Tai Chi for Beginners - and learn at home. Deep breathing, going for a short brisk walk, and listening to a guided meditation can also help reduce your stress levels.

12. Eat healthy fats
Not all fats are created equal, and healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (found in nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados) have been shown to help increase satiety and reduce your chance of accumulating tummy fat. Another good reason to follow a Mediterranean diet!