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If your goal is to reduce belly fat, the first step is to identify unhealthy eating habits that may have contributed to those extra pounds. Think: drinking sugary drinks, regular happy hours and drive-thru trips.

Breaking out of these perennial habits will move the needle a bit. But at the same time, you should get into the habit of adopting proactive, good-for-you habits that will accelerate your belly fat reduction efforts.

Establishing habits can be difficult for the simple reason that we often forget to do what we promise ourselves to do. That’s why scientists who study motivation and habit formation suggest use markers to trigger the behaviors we want to make habitual.

For example: if the host of a party asks you if you would like a cocktail (the signal), decide that your answer will always be: “I will start with water, please” (the behavior). Or when the waiter places the bread basket on your table at the restaurant (the cue), you automatically say “no thanks, could you please take it away?” (the habit).

Below are the eating habits recommended by dietitians to reduce belly fat. And if you’re looking for recipes that will reinforce those habits, check out the best breakfast recipes to help reduce belly fat.


Signal: You catch yourself opening a package with a long list of ingredients

The technical word for belly fat is visceral fat and it is the most dangerous type of fat because it is found deep within us around our organs. Having too many can put you at risk for heart disease and diabetes. While fried foods and fast foods contribute to this problem, “visceral fat is really linked to highly refined and processed carbohydrates, foods linked to insulin production and blood sugar that are more likely to be stored as fat in your abdomen,” says a dietitian nutritionist. Bess Berger, RDN, CDNowner to Feeding by Bess in New Jersey.

The habit to develop is to eat high quality unprocessed carbs like beans, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas and baked sweet potatoes instead of processed carbs like bagels, pizza, pasta , white rice and sugar-filled snacks.

Berger suggests starting the switch slowly. Pick one meal a day and replace your bread/bagel/pastry/fries with a serving of beans, legumes, or sweet potatoes, then gradually switch to mostly unprocessed carbs. “One change at a time can make a major change,” she says.

eat almonds

Signal: Every time you open the cookie tin

When you reach the cookie jar to satisfy a snack craving, use this prompt to grab a healthier option. Make it even easier: fill your cookie jar with raw almonds. “Replace your chips, cookies, chocolate, cakes and candies with a handful of nuts or chopped vegetables dipped in hummus,” says Berger. “It gives our bodies a huge break from processed carbs and provides refreshing, nutrient-dense, high-quality fuel and a much better chance of burning visceral belly fat.”

woman drinking water

Signal: You are about to sit down to eat.

This is the first of four basic practices that have helped dietitian nutritionists Iana Muhlstein, MS, RDN, lose 100 lbs. “Water First” is about leveraging the simplest and most powerful nutritional habits we have,” the book’s author explains. You can drop it! How I Lost 100 Pounds Enjoying Carbs, Cocktails & Chocolate – And You Can Too!

Drinking two glasses of water before your meal will fill you up, so you’ll be less likely to give in to temptations that cause overeating. “Water works as a nutritional voice of reason, helping you make better food decisions throughout the day. It’s the trigger for your whole approach to weight loss,” says Muhlstein.

steamed broccoli

Signal: When preparing your dish, fill it halfway with vegetables.

If you fill half your plate with vegetables, you will never skip them. It will remind you to get into the habit of eating all your vegetables on your plate before moving on to something else – bread and other starches and proteins.

“This habit works because vegetables are high in fiber, they help you feel full, and that’s part of what helps you get better weight loss results,” says Muhlstein.

Studies have shown that advising people to eat large amounts of low-calorie foods like vegetables is a more effective weight loss strategy than portion control or eating less.

small container fruit salad

Signal: Craving for cake or ice cream

If you’re used to craving dessert after every dinner, you don’t even need to break that habit, just change it up a bit. When you crave something sweet, go for a whole fruit. The sugar in this fruit will satisfy your craving in a healthy way.

“Fruits are dense in nutrients, water and dietary fiber, which prevent disease,” says dietitian Lon Ben AsherMS, RD, LD/N, nutritionist at the Pritikin Longevity Center. Unlike most desserts made with processed flour, high-fiber fruit has less of an impact on blood sugar, meaning it will satisfy cravings rather than encourage more.

woman eating a sandwich and checking her watch

Signal: Set an alarm to ring every three to four hours to remind you to eat something to avoid overeating later in the day.

Many nutritionists recommend consuming 90% of total daily calories by 8 p.m. Why ? Two main reasons involve food cravings and poor sleep quality.

Eating later in the evening usually means it’s been many hours since you’ve eaten something, which can cause extreme hunger that often leads to overeating. By eating meals at regular intervals, you regulate your blood sugar and avoid having to fight cravings. A critical step in reducing belly fat is to avoid gorging on food.

Second, insufficient sleep has been linked to weight gain, as it often triggers intense morning cravings for sweets and carbs. “Evidence has shown that the last meal of the day should be taken 3 hours before bedtime; this time frame gives the body enough time to properly digest food and avoid acidity or indigestion while you’re trying to fall asleep,” says Susan Kelly, RDNa dietitian registered with the Pacific Analysis. Kelly recommends getting into the habit of watching the types of foods you eat at night and avoiding them:

  • Grapefruit and other acidic foods can cause acid reflux which disrupts sleep.
  • Cheese is “one of the worst foods before bed,” she says, “due to high levels of tyramine, an amino acid that keeps you alert for long hours.”
  • Spicy foods and sauces containing capsaicin in higher amounts. This spice increases body temperature, which interrupts your sleep.
  • Cookies and other sugary foods raise your blood sugar, which also triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which disrupts sleep.
Woman reading in a bath

Signal: You have accomplished something significant.

Some use food rewards to celebrate an accomplishment, like wrapping up a month-long work project, or maybe we think we deserve dessert if we’ve been eating healthy all day.

The problem with “eating as a reward” is that it’s not in response to hunger. He equates food rewards with happiness. And since we strive to be happy, it can lead us to reward ourselves with ice cream, cupcakes, and other treats that are incompatible with reducing belly fat.

Instead of using food to reward your good deeds, find other rewards you can learn to enjoy as much as donuts, suggest the authors of the Johns Hopkins Press Health Book Weight loss for life, the proven plan for success.

To break out of reward-style eating habits, they recommend making a list of 1) things you like to do; 2.) Things that are chores but satisfying; and 3) Things you always wanted to do or used to do. From this list, you should be able to find some highly motivating, calorie-free rewards. And if you still want to toast your success with a drink, make sure it’s one of these five that melt belly fat faster.