It's an all-too-common problem: despite a rigorous exercise regimen and a flawless diet, every single pound you gain goes right to your middle. And if you're tubby in the tummy, looking great in a bikini is the least of your worries. Excess belly fat is associated with increased risk of heart attacks, as well as certain types of cancer.
If you are wondering where your waistline went, don't despair. There are ways to reduce belly fat, lower your risk of disease, and slim your middle. Try these 10 tips.
1. Get More Sleep
You snooze, you lose-pounds, that is. Several dozen studies have found that short sleep duration is strongly and consistently associated with weight gain. Other studies have found that insufficient sleep may undermine even the best dietary efforts to lose body fat.
There are several reasons why more sleep equals less fat. First, lack of sleep lowers metabolic rate. Fatigue also appears to increase appetite and cravings. Why? Too little sleep increases levels of ghrelin, a hormone that promotes appetite and fat production, while decreasing levels of leptin, a hormone that sends "I'm full" signals to the brain.
If you're having trouble snoozing, try melatonin supplements. Sublingual forms generally work best.
2. Watch the Clock
The time of day during which you eat really does matter. Research shows that we burn calories best when the sun is high in the sky — that is, at lunchtime-says Marc David, author of The Slow-Down Diet. 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. So don't skip breakfast, eat a light dinner, skip nighttime snacks, and eat the bulk of your calories at lunch.
3. Check Hormones
As we age, fluctuating hormone levels may encourage belly fat. In particular, estrogen dominance-caused by decreasing progesterone levels-tends to increase fat storage around the middle. Diets high in bad fats, processed foods, and conventional animal products exacerbate estrogen dominance.
Progesterone creams, applied topically to the skin or vaginal walls, can help. Citrus fruits, onion, garlic, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage can also help modulate excess estrogen. Before you start self-treating, however, it's helpful to get a hormone test-24-hour urine tests are considered the most accurate, and can usually be ordered by naturopaths or nutritionists.
4. Shun Sugar
A diet high in sugar (even natural forms such as honey and maple syrup) causes insulin surges and upsets blood sugar. The same goes for refined grains, excess grains of any kind, and starchy vegetables. Keeping blood sugar levels balanced is critical for 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.
So choose your carbs wisely. Minimize the number of grains in your diet, and maximize your intake of 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, says Anne Louise Gittleman, author of Fat Flush for Life.
5. 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, 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 can ferment in the gut and cause bloating. Carbonated beverages, of course, can also increase gas in the belly.
Rule number one for healthy digestion: slow down at meals, and chew your food thoroughly. Swap artificial sweeteners for stevia, and drink flat versus fizzy beverages (iced green tea with mint may also increase metabolism and help burn fat). And if your digestion is less than hardy, take probiotics and digestive enzymes with meals.
6. Eat More Fiber
Dietary fiber can slim your middle by encouraging regular bowel movements. Consuming both soluble and insoluble fibers is the most effective way to ensure regularity. Fiber also helps balance blood sugar and delays gastric emptying, so you feel fuller, longer.
You can find soluble fiber in chia seeds, flax seeds, beans, peas, and oat bran. Insoluble fiber is found mainly in vegetables and whole grains. Or you can take a supplement that contains both. Start small to avoid bloating, and work your way up to 30 grams a day.
7. Reduce Salt Intake
Sodium encourages the body to retain water, so hide the salt-shaker and avoid processed foods — the primary source of excess dietary salt. At the same time, increase your intake of potassium, which helps balance excess sodium levels and encourages the body to let go of excess fluid. Try to eat 4-5 cups of vegetables each day, most of which are rich in potassium. Foods especially rich in potassium include avocados, mushrooms, spinach, dried apricots, and yogurt.
8. Increase Your Intake of CLA
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a compound found in animal products that boosts weight loss and helps reduce fat. Studies have found that supplementing with CLA (1,700-3,400 mg per day) also improves muscle-to-fat ratio, regulates cholesterol, and maintains insulin sensitivity, which helps balance blood sugar.
CLA is found mainly 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.
9. Zap Stress
When you're stressed, your body generates a compound called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which prompts the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol not only stimulates appetite, but 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 any way you can. Supplements can help. Try soothing herbs such as passionflower, valerian, and skullcap. And L-theanine, a compound that's abundant in green tea, calms and relaxes the nervous system and increases concentration.
10. Try Interval Training
Regular exercise busts belly fat not only by burning away calories but also by dissipating cortisol levels. But exercising too hard or too long increases cortisol-exactly what you don't want. The best approach: interval training that alternates between high- and low-intensity bursts of movement.
After warming up, exercise as hard as you can for 15-20 seconds, then rest for 1 minute. Repeat this cycle 10 times. Interval training employs both aerobic and anaerobic systems, and increases the rate at which the body burns calories after you've finished exercising.
See Also 4 Stress-Busting Supplements
Use Your Bean
Beans contain a compound called resistant starch, a type of fiber that curbs cravings, promotes muscle mass, and makes you feel fuller, longer. Dr. Oz, who has praised beans as a fat-burning food on his show, suggests eating 1 cup of beans at every meal to help burn fat around the middle. *Here are three quick and tasty ways to prepare beans:
1. Combine cooked kidney beans with chickpeas, green beans, sliced scallions, diced celery, and a vinaigrette dressing for a traditional three-bean salad.
2. Simmer chickpeas with stock, onions, tomatoes, cinnamon sticks, and cardamom, then add dried apricots and chopped almonds for a fragrant tagine.
3. Toss cooked black beans with olive oil, lime juice, chopped cilantro, scallions, and diced red pepper.
*Get more tips on cooking with beans, including easy-to-make recipes with an international twist and guidelines for making beans from scratch. Simply sign up for Nutrition Naturally and you'll receive a copy of the latest issue, which includes a piece on bean cuisine. This new monthly e-newsletter is free of charge and features original recipes and articles on whole foods, natural living, supplements, herbs, and much more!