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There’s no doubt that a slimmer tummy will help you fit into those high-waisted skinny jeans you’ve been coveting. But excess belly fat is more that just annoying extra flub that makes your clothes feel tight.
People who tend to gain weight in the abdominal area, or apple-shaped folks, have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. In women, excess abdominal fat also been associated with greater odds of breast cancer. Learn more about what your body shape says about your health.
All in all,losing the fat around your middle has major health benefits, besides a body image boost.
Where you tend to pack on the pounds seems to depend on your genes and hormones, but that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to the fate your mama gave you. Losing belly fat can be tough, but it is possible. And you don’t have to slave away at the gym 24/7 to reach your goals.
"Cardio is a great way to lose belly fat, but there are other lifestyle changes that can be implemented to whittle your middle,” says certified personal trainer and nutritionist Lindsey Mathews.
“Exercise is definitely an important part of weight loss, but what’s just as important (if not more!) is your nutrition,” says Mathews. That old saying “abs are made in the kitchen” definitely holds true, at least partly.
Here are science-backed diet and lifestyle changes that are proven to help you slim down your tummy.
“Most people eat way too much sugar every day without even realizing it,” says Hector Bones, an exercise physiologist and certified personal trainer. “Sugar has found its way into almost everything, including things you wouldn't expect, like frozen dinners, sauces, oatmeal, and pretty much all processed food.” Check out these surprising foods that have more sugar than a glazed donut.
It’s no doubt that eating too much sugar can easily push you over your calorie budget, which can lead to weight gain. But studies have shown that consuming excess sugar may also lead to increased abdominal fat, due to sugar’s effects on the liver. When you eat too much sugar, the liver gets overloaded with fructose and is forced to convert it into fat.
“Start looking at the nutrition label while you're at the grocery store, and if a food has more than five grams of sugar per serving, leave it on the shelf,” says Bones.
Alongside cutting down your sugar intake, limiting carbohydrates—and specifically simple carbohydrates, like white bread—may be particularly helpful for reducing fat in the belly area.
Studies have shown that following a strict low-carb diet (less than 50 grams per day) promoted belly fat loss in people who were overweight and had type 2 diabetes. Researchers believe this is because carb restriction seems to reduce the secretion of insulin, which may cause fat to breakdown more quickly—particularly from the abdominal area.
Lowering your intake to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day (that’s roughly the amount in a grande Starbucks Frappuccino) may be unrealistic for the long term, but you don’t need to be super strict about carb cutting to reap the benefits. Even just switching from refined carbs to eating more complex carbs, like whole grain bread and brown rice, may help reduce belly fat.
One study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that people who filled their diet with whole grains instead of refined grains were 17 percent less likely to have abdominal fat, for example.
Low-energy density (LED) foods, which are made of mostly water and can also be high in fiber or protein, help you lose weight (all over) by filling your tummy for fewer calories. That’s because water dilutes the calories in food. Broccoli, apples, blackberries, tomatoes and grapes are examples of foods that are 85 to 95 percent water.
Fiber and protein help you feel full so you don’t want to eat more—but these nutrients also seem to have special powers against belly fat too. One study published in the journal Obesity found that, over a five-year period, for every 10-gram increase of soluble fiber that the participants consumed, the rate of belly fat gain decreased 3.7 percent. Several studies also show that people who eat more lean protein—sorry, we’re not talking about cheeseburgers—have less abdominal fat than those who eat a lower-protein diet.
OK, maybe it’s a given that it’s beneficial to avoid foods that may contain trans fats (like doughnuts, cookies, crackers, muffins, and cakes), since these foods are associated with a junky diet and weight gain.
But the potential of trans fats to harm goes beyond simply adding to your daily calorie count. One six-year animal study found that a high-trans fat diet caused insulin resistance, increased belly fat, and high blood sugar in monkeys compared to those who ate the same amount of calories, but consumed healthier kinds of fats. Keep an eye on the nutrition labels for ingredients that contain trans fats—namely, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
Ever heard of a “beer belly?” It’s a real thing … sort of.
The term “beer belly” is often used to describe people who drink a lot and have a lot of fat around their midsection because of it.
Beer is definitely a suspect, but it’s actually not the only booze to blame. Heavy alcohol consumption, whatever your libation of choice, is not only bad for your overall health, but it’s also linked to increased abdominal fat gain.
One study conducted by Spanish researchers found that men who drank more than three alcoholic beverages a day had a waist circumference that was an average of three centimeters larger than those who had one to two drinks per day.
The reason for this belly fat gain pattern isn’t entirely clear, but researchers do believe that it may be because the excess calories from booze (just three drinks can add 500 to 600 calories to your daily count) may cause people to gain more weight overall, which may contribute to their “booze belly”—especially if they’re prone to gaining weight around their middle.
This doesn’t mean you have to live without your beloved alcoholic bevvies forever—just consume in moderation. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention, low-risk drinking means one drink a day for women and two for men.
Along with these diet tweaks, there are other key factors that play a big role in your ability to lose abdominal fat.
“I’ve worked with people that would eat the right things, exercise a lot, and do all of the standards for losing weight, but just we’re not getting the results they wanted until they fixed one thing: sleep,” says Bones.“A bad night sleep can lead to poor eating decisions.”
Sleep deprivation can throw your hunger hormones—ghrelin and leptin—out of whack. Ghrelin stimulates appetite; leptin suppresses it. When your body is sleep deprived, your ghrelin goes up and leptin goes down, which may cause you to eat more, and can increase cravings for salty, sweet, starchy, and other junky foods.
One five-year study found that adults under age 40 who slept five hours or less a night accumulated significantly more fat all over and a higher body mass index (BMI). Do your health and waistline a favor: Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night.
“To lose belly fat, it would help if we concentrated on controlling our cortisol levels,” says Bones. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, has been linked to increases in appetite and fat storage around the middle.
“There are times when it’s good to have high cortisol, like right before a workout, but for the most part having high cortisol increases insulin levels, which then turns into weight gain,” says Bones. “Take the time to do some meditation and sleep well, and see that waistline go in your favor." Try this 10-minute stress busting yoga routine.
Remember, losing the fat around your middle is possible, but it’s going to take some patience. There’s no way to spot reduce belly fat. It’s going to take dedication and an accumulation of small, healthy changes to get the results you want. “If we truly want to lose belly fat, we might have better luck not focusing solely on losing fat, but instead on getting healthy. If you focus on getting as healthy as possible, the belly fat will follow,” says Rob Arthur, CSCS, a fitness, nutrition, and health coach.