man doing sit-ups on exercise ball

The term "beer belly" is a bit of a misnomer. The fact is that it's not just beer that adds fat to your abdominal area. Too many calories from any food or beverage can deliver the same results. The old person saying "calories in, calories out" has relevance to avoiding the dreaded beer belly.

When you consume more calories than your body can effectively burn off, your system stores them as fat. Your age, sex, and hormones all play a role in determining where your body stores fat. Men may end up with more belly fat because they store less fat in their arms, thighs, and buttocks than women. But women aren't immune. Despite having more areas for fat storage,they can sport beer bellies from too many calories as well--especially as they get older and hormone levels decline.

What's wrong with a beer belly? It's not just the look of the "spare tire" that's an issue; beer bellies can herald serious health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Experts say you've got a problem if your waist circumference is larger than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men.

If the tape measure proves unkind, then it's time to tackle that belly fat, which is not as easy as you might think. Simply doing lots of sit-ups or core exercises won't cut it. There's no way to succeed at "spot reduction" of fat in a certain area of the body. Instead, you must remember how you got here in the first place: calories in, not enough calories out. It's a two-way approach. If you increase your workouts but also increase the amount of food that you eat, you're not likely to reach your goal. For best results, you must both eat less and exercise more. Cutting too many calories is counterproductive, as it puts the body into starvation mode, slows down metabolism, and increases the tendency to store fat, warns Harvard Women's Health Watch.

Consider these tips to get the job done:

1. Increase aerobic exercise.
The tried-and-true method of cardiovascular exercise provides the best calorie-burner. Whether it's running, bicycling, swimming, rowing, long walking, playing tennis, or using a stair-climber at the gym, you want to choose an activity that makes you break a sweat and gets your heart pumping--and stick with it.

A 30-minute cardio workout three times a week is a baseline to aim for in the first few months. Over time, if you can build your workout time up to 45 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week, you'll burn more calories faster. Be sure to consult with your doctor before starting any new exercise program.

2. Add strength training.
Although lifting weights and other forms of strength training such as push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups won't eliminate belly fat, they can still be helpful in your overall plan. This is because weight training strengthens muscles and burns additional calories and at the same time it spikes your metabolism.

The effects of this spike continue for about an hour after your workout, which means that your body will keep burning calories at a higher rate, even though you've stopped exercising. It doesn't get much better than that! Do the weight lifting two to three times a week to receive this belly-busting benefit.

3. Stick to a healthy, low-cal diet.
Cutting down on the calories that you eat and drink is as important as exercise to your plan. Take a careful look at your dietary habits and find room for improvement. Some places to start include:

  • Cutting down on portion size.
  • Adding more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans to your diet
  • Eliminating as many processed foods as possible

4. Drink less alcohol.
Alcoholic beverages aren't solely responsible for a beer belly, but they can contribute to one. Studies have shown a link between alcohol calories and belly fat, particularly when "binge drinking" in one sitting. When drinking beer, select a light option with less than 100 calories. Eating a healthy meal before or with your drink can help you resist the salty and high-caloric foods that are often served in bars and restaurants.

Once you start losing weight, you may notice it coming off your midsection first, since fat in that area--the visceral (deep) fat, as opposed to the pinch-skin fat--is very active metabolically. Keep these tips in mind and you'll keep moving forward.