You've been disciplined with your workouts. Made efforts to improve your diet. The hard work has paid off. You've lost a good amount of weight and are feeling good. But, you hit a plateau and no matter what you do, you can't lose that stubborn fat that holds on at the belly.

Understand right off that having a hard time losing belly fat is completely normal. Fat is the most energy dense of all the nutrients, so your body stores fat as an energy reserve. Where on your body the fat is distributed depends on several factors, including genetics and hormone levels, but most people hold onto excess fat at their belly.

Many are most concerned with losing belly fat for aesthetic reasons, but it's important to keep in mind that fat around the stomach is associated with serious health conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Visceral fat, which is the belly fat that nestles in between your organs, is particularly dangerous because it increases the stress hormone cortisol and the inflammatory substance cytokines, which affect insulin production.

While it may take some time, there are things you can do to address that fat so stubbornly lingering at your belly. Reducing your sugar intake, eating more protein, and getting as much physical activity as possible have all been shown effective at reducing belly fat. Know that crunches or other abdominal exercise, while effective for building strength and tone in the core, do not affect fat tissue.

Reduce Your Sugar Intake

Added sugars, which include any sugars that are added to foods or beverages, offer zero nutritional benefit and significantly increase your calorie intake. Several studies have shown sugar intake to be associated with the presence of visceral belly fat and added sugar has been directly linked to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. According to the American Heart Association, the increase in added sugar intake in foods and drinks has contributed to the obesity epidemic in the United States.

By reducing your added sugar intake, you effectively cut calories, which in turn facilitates fat loss. Women should consume no more than 6 teaspoons (100 calories) of sugar per day, while men should stick with less than 9 teaspoons (150 calories) of sugar per day.

Unfortunately, it can be challenging to know what foods and beverages have added sugars, but you can check the "sugars" line on a food's nutrition facts panel. Completely eliminate sugary drinks like sodas, sports drinks and fruit juices from your diet and avoid adding sugar to your coffee or tea. Know that you should consume whole fruits, which contain natural rather than added sugar and are high in fiber, which has shown to decrease calorie intake and increase fat loss.

Eat More Protein

Taking in more protein everyday may help you reduce your belly fat. Protein has been shown to reduce food cravings and boost metabolic rate so that you burn more overall calories throughout the day. One study found that an increased intake of protein played a role in reducing body fat percentage and another that found a direct correlation between the amount and quality of protein intake with a reduction in belly fat gain.

Increase your intake of high-quality, unprocessed proteins like eggs, fish, lean meats and low-fat dairy products. If you're a vegetarian or vegan, opt for high-protein foods like spinach, sunflower seeds and kidney beans.

Get in as Much Physical Activity as Possible

Exercise is key to losing belly fat. Your body breaks down fat whenever you create a caloric deficit, which occurs when you burn more calories than you consume over a period of time. When you work out, you significantly increase the number of calories burned. Cardiovascular exercise, such as walking, running, swimming or cycling, has shown to significantly reduce belly fat.

How much exercise you need depends on your training history. For those who are sedentary, a 2004 Duke University study found that just 30 minutes of daily walking, or 10 to 12 miles of walking per week, is enough to reduce waist circumference. For those who have been already working out regularly, 60 minutes of cardio on most days is likely needed. Plus, make sure that you lift weights two to three days per week. Weight training builds lean muscle, which boosts metabolic rate and supports fat loss.