13 Strategies to Banish Belly Fat for Good

Help lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes by deflating the "spare tire."

April 21, 2017
belly fat

Adapted from Outsmart Diabetes 1-2-3

The best thing you can do to protect your heart and your risk for diabetes is to avoid putting on abdominal fat in the first place.

"Once you've generated fat tissue, you can't destroy it—you can only shrink it," says Alan Marcus, MD, a physician in private practice in Laguna Hills, California, who specializes in diabetes management and endocrinology. But if you've already packed a few pounds around your middle, you'll still do yourself a world of good by taking off some of it.

More: 31 Days to a Flat Belly

And you don't have to lose much to make a difference in your health. "If you lose only 10 percent of your body weight, you can drastically reduce your risk for diabetes and other conditions," Dr. Vagnini says.

The tips below will help you lose weight throughout your entire body, including your abdomen. "Despite the claims that devices that shake or massage belly fat will shrink your middle, no one has really come up with one strategy per se that specifically targets abdominal fat over other types of fat," Dr. Goldstein says.

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Assess your ab fat

To see where you stand in terms of abdominal fat, take a flexible tape measure and wrap it snugly (not tightly) around the widest part of your waist. Then measure the widest part of your hips. Compare the two numbers; if your waist is the same as or bigger than your hips, you're carrying too much weight on your stomach.

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If you smoke, stop

Although smokers generally have lower BMIs than nonsmokers do, they have more abdominal fat. In a British study of 21,828 men and women published in the August 2005 issue of Obesity Research, the researchers discovered that current smokers had the largest waist-to-hip ratios, and those who had never smoked had the smallest. Among current and former smokers, the size of the ratio depended on the number of cigarettes smoked. Still smoking? Quit now for a head start on minimizing your middle.

More: How Omega-3s Help You Quit Smoking Faster

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Create a belly-shrinking balance

If you have excess abdominal fat that puts you at risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes, the American Diabetes Association suggests you eat a diet composed of about 25 percent protein, 45 percent carbohydrates, and 30 percent fat (primarily unsaturated).

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When it comes to dietary fat, go mono

Not all fats are created equal. Studies show that although monounsaturated fats serve up the same number of calories as other types of dietary fat, they're less likely to end up as extra pounds and abdominal fat.

"Researchers compared the weight loss results from one group of people following a diet of large amounts of fish, olive oil, vegetables, and fruits with another group of people who were sticking to low-fat and high-carbohydrate diets," Dr. Felder explains. "They found that those following the fish/olive oil/vegetables and fruit diet shed excess pounds from both the upper and lower body, but the other group mainly lost fat from the lower body."

More: 5 Expert-Approved Fats for Vibrant Skin

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Munch on a Mediterranean diet

Monounsaturated fats are a big part of the Mediterranean diet, an eating plan that has also been shown to help shrink belly fat. When it comes to losing abdominal fat and overall weight, Dr. Vagnini recommends a modified low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diet of "fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat protein, olive oil, and red wine."

In addition to lowering the risk of diabetes, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to lower blood pressure and help prevent Alzheimer's disease and metabolic syndrome.

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Skimp on simple carbs

Dr. Vagnini recommends you avoid sweets and other simple sugars.

"Get rid of the cookies, candies, doughnuts, ice cream, and cake (except maybe on your birthday), and reduce the bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals, fruits, and fruit juices," he says. The degree of restriction depends on your weight and your blood sugar—the more you weigh and the higher your blood sugar, the more you need to steer clear of simple carbs.

More: 7 Ways to Balance Your Blood Sugar

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Be choosy about veggies

Vegetables are generally great for weight loss because they deliver so much nutrition for relatively few calories. But they're not all created equal in terms of abdominal fat and diabetes risk, Dr. Vagnini says. You can eat broccoli, peppers, onions, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, spinach, and so on pretty much without restraint. On the other hand, starchy vegetables—such as corn, beets, carrots, lima beans, potatoes, and sweet potatoes—tend to act more like carbohydrates in your body and so should be limited (but follow these rules to swap carbs with vegetables for added nutrition).

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Move it to lose it

Contrary to popular belief, it's not crunches that take most of the weight off your abdomen; it's cardiovascular exercise. Luckily, you don't have to move much to start lightening up. "Even if you just walk for 10 to 15 minutes after you eat, it's better than nothing," says Martha Funnell, RN, CDE, a clinical nurse specialist and codirector of the Behavioral, Clinical, and Health Systems Research Core at the University of Michigan Diabetes Research and Training Center.

If you haven't been active for a while, be sure to talk to your health care professional about exercise before you begin. Then start slowly, and increase your total time by 1 to 3 minutes each week, Funnell suggests. Ideally, build up to 30 minutes of moderate activity, such as brisk walking, 4 or 5 days a week (follow these steps for a great walking workout). Other great cardio options: aerobics classes, dancing, tennis, racquetball, golf (if you walk the course), and jogging (here's how to start running).

More: 5 Questions That'll Help You Find the Best Workout for You

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Step up your workout

Although you'll no doubt lose weight with moderate exercise, to specifically target belly fat, you may want to push yourself a little harder. In an 8-month Duke University study of 175 overweight adults, a third of the participants exercised at a low intensity, another third worked out at a higher intensity, and the remaining third didn't exercise at all. At the end of the study, the nonexercisers gained 8.6 percent abdominal fat, and the low-intensity exercisers fended off additional abdominal pounds, despite gaining an average of 1.5 pounds. But the greatest intensity brought the greatest results: Those folks lost an average of 6 pounds and shrunk their belly fat by 7 percent.

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Don't forget the food factor

Your workouts won't banish belly fat if you're still eating with abandon. "Exercise is important, but it cannot begin to take the place of diet changes," says Neal Barnard, MD, adjunct asso- ciate professor of medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Services and author of Dr. Neal Barnard's Program for Reversing Diabetes

More: 13 Flat-Belly Food Tricks

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Feast on fiber

Fiber acts like negative calories: Each 14 grams of fiber that you add to your diet per day cuts your total calorie intake by about 10 percent. High-fiber foods fill you up faster, so you stop eating sooner. Plus, fiber keeps you regular, so you're less likely to have a constipated, bloated belly.

One of the easiest ways to incorporate fiber into your diet is by choosing high-fiber breads. "Check the label—if the bread has at least 5 grams of fiber per slice, it's high in fiber," says Donna Rice, RN, CDE, a past president of the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Other fiber-packed foods include whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. Aim for at least 25 grams of fiber per day.

Dr. Felder suggests the following ways to sneak more fiber into your diet:

  • Add whole grains to vegetables, soups, and stews. Slip some bulgur wheat into casseroles or stir-fries, and use barley in soups and stews.
  • Make whole grain rice pilaf with a mixture of wild rice, barley, brown rice, broth, and spices. For even more fiber, stir in some nuts or dried fruit.
  • Substitute whole wheat or oat flour for half of the flour in pancakes, muffins, waffles, and other flour-based recipes.
  • Make meat loaf with whole grain bread or cracker crumbs.
  • Use rolled oats or crushed unsweetened whole grain cereal as breading for baked chicken, fish, veal, or eggplant.
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Bone up on dairy

In a study of 34 obese people, those who ate three servings of fat-free yogurt per day lost 22 percent more weight, 61 percent more body fat, and 81 percent more belly fat than people who ate the same amount of calories minus the dairy. Why? Dairy products seem to lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that causes you to store fat on your belly.

More: 6 Dairy Products for Maximum Health

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Suck down some seaweed

One possible reason Japanese people are so slim: A certain type of kelp called wakame, which is widely consumed in Japan, seems to shrink belly fat. Researchers found that fucoxanthin, the brown pigment in seaweed, helped mice and rats lose 5 to 10 percent of their weight by shrinking belly fat. Fucoxanthin appears to stimulate a protein found in abdominal fat that causes fat burning. Eating sushi wrapped in seaweed and other kelp-containing dishes may help shrivel your belly—and your risk for diabetes.

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Tags: dieting