It’s an all-too-common problem: in spite of a rigorous exercise regimen and a flawless diet, every single pound you gain goes right to your middle. But if you’re tubby in the tummy, looking great in a bikini is the least of your worries; excess belly fat is associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and certain types of cancer.
If you’re wondering where your waistline went, don’t despair: there are ways to bust belly fat, reduce your risk of disease, and slim your middle. Try these ten tips:
- Sleep more. You snooze, you lose—pounds, that is. Several dozen studies have found that short sleep duration is strongly and consistently associated with weight gain. There are several reasons why more sleep equals less fat. First, lack of sleep lowers overall metabolic rate. Fatigue also appears to boost appetite and increase cravings. Why? Too little sleep increases levels of ghrelin, a hormone that boosts appetite and increases fat production, while decreasing levels of leptin, the body’s hormone that sends “I’m full” signals to the brain. And other studies have found that insufficient sleep may undermine even the best dietary efforts to lose body fat. If you’re having trouble snoozing, try melatonin supplements; sublingual forms are best.
- Watch the clock. The time of day during which you eat really does matter. Most research shows that we burn calories best when the the sun is highest in the sky—that is, lunch. Early morning and late evening are the least-efficient calorie-burning periods. Studies also show that skipping breakfast is associated with weight gain, as is eating at night. What this means: don’t skip breakfast, eat a light dinner, banish night time snacking, and consume the bulk of your calories at lunch.
- Check hormones. As we age, fluctuating hormone levels may encourage the body to store fat in the belly. In particular, estrogen dominance—caused by decreasing progesterone levels during menopause and peri-menopause—tends to increase fat storage around the abdomen. Diets high in animal fat, processed foods and conventional meat and dairy products exacerbate estrogen dominance, as do food packages like plastic wrap and styrofoam. Progesterone creams, applied topically on the skin or vaginal walls, can help. Citrus fruits, onion, garlic and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage also help modulate excess, harmful forms of estrogen. Before you start self-treating, it’s helpful to get a hormone test; 24-hour urine tests are considered most accurate, and can be ordered by most naturopaths or nutritionists.
- Bail on sugar. A diet high in sugar (even natural forms like honey and maple syrup) causes insulin surges and upsets blood sugar. The same goes for refined grains, excess grains of any kind, and high amounts of starchy vegetables. Keeping blood sugar levels balanced is critical in busting belly fat, since insulin encourages the body to store fat around the middle. Additionally, when you decrease or eliminate sugar from your diet, the body’s production of glucagon—a hormone that helps mobilize stored fat—increases. Choose carbs wisely; minimize grains and focus on vegetables and fruits that detoxify the liver and provide concentrated nutrients and antioxidants. Some of the best: leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, berries, cherries, asparagus and zucchini.
- Banish bloating. Sometimes belly fat isn’t actually fat; it’s bloating and gas in the stomach and intestines, often caused by inadequate digestion or eating too fast (when you gulp down meals, you swallow air and decrease digestive potential, leading to bloating). Chewing gum also leads to swallowing air, and sugar-free gum, mints and beverages often contain mannitol or sorbitol, indigestible sugar alcohols that ferment in the gut and cause bloating. And carbonated beverages increase gas in the belly. Rule number one: slow down at meals, and chew foods thoroughly. Swap artificial sweeteners for stevia, and drink flat versus fizzy beverages (iced green tea with mint may also increase metabolism). And if your digestion is less than hardy, take probiotics and digestive enzymes with meals.
- Get regular. Dietary fiber can slim your middle by encouraging regular bowel movements. Consuming both soluble and insoluble fibers is the most effective in ensuring regularity. And in addition to increasing regularity, fiber also balances blood sugar and delays gastric emptying so you feel fuller, longer. Find soluble fiber in chia seeds, flax seeds, beans, peas and oat bran. Insoluble fiber is mainly in vegetables and whole grains. Or take a supplement that contains both; start small to avoid bloating, and work your way up to 30 grams a day.
- Skimp on salt. Sodium encourages the body to hang on to water, causing puffiness in the belly. Take the salt shaker off the table, and decrease consumption of packaged foods, the primary cause of excess salt in the diet (check labels for sodium content). Meanwhile, increase potassium intake; potassium helps balance excess sodium levels and encourages the body to let go of excess fluid. Increase consumption of vegetables, most of which are rich in potassium; aim for 4 to 5 cups a day, and focus on potassium-rich foods like avocados, mushrooms, spinach, dried apricots and yogurt.
- Eat this healthy fat. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a compound found in animal products that boosts weight loss and helps reduce body fat., Several studies have found that supplementing with CLA (1700 to 3400 mg/day) also improves muscle to fat ratio, regulates cholesterol levels and maintains insulin sensitivity, which helps balance blood sugar. CLA is found in the highest concentrations in grass-fed and pastured meat, poultry and eggs (another plus: eating more protein also balances blood sugar and increases the body’s production of glucagon).
- Zap stress. When you’re under stress, your body generates a compounds called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which prompts the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol not only stimulates appetite, it also encourages the body to store fat—you guessed it—in the belly. Additionally, when you’re stressed, your sleep patterns are more likely to be interrupted, creating a vicious cycle. What to do? Bust stress, however you can. Supplements can help; try soothing herbs like passionflower, valerian and skullcap; L-theanine, a compound that’s abundant in green tea, calms and relaxes the nervous system and increases concentration.
- Do interval training. Exercise busts belly fat not only by burning calories, but also dissipating cortisol levels; but exercising too hard or too long increases cortisol—not what you want. Best approach: use interval training that alternates high- and low-intensity bursts of movement. After warming up, go at max capacity for 15 to 20 seconds, rest for 1 minute, repeat 10 times. Interval training employees both aerobic and anaerobic systems, and increases the rate at which the body burns calories after you’ve finished exercising.