Are ‘belly fat diets’ bogus?
Can you banish belly fat by going on a “flat belly” diet? Will eating more fat help you lose belly fat? Will that popular (and costly) supplement “bust” your belly permanently?
Take this quick True/False quiz to see how much you know about belly fat and weight loss.
- Belly fat is more hazardous to your health than fat stored in other areas of your body.
- High-fat foods are most responsible for belly fat.
- Excessive alcohol is most likely to be stored as belly fat, compared to other foods and beverages.
- Research shows that certain foods can help fight belly fat.
- Compared to other areas of your body, belly fat is the hardest fat to lose.
- Like all fat loss, belly fat is strictly a matter of calorie balance — eat less, move more, lose belly fat.
- Belly fat will gradually disappear with daily sit-ups and crunches. You can also utilize one of those exercise machines guaranteed to trim belly fat.
- True: In the past 30 years, researchers have learned a lot about fat. As reported in Harvard Health, people with a lot of belly fat (apples) have a higher risk for serious health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, compared to people who carry excess weight around their hips and thighs (pears).
- False: Of the three major nutrients, fat has more than double the calories compared to carbohydrate and protein. But excess carbohydrates in the wrong form are a bigger problem in obesity. In an article for the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dr. Frank B. Hu cites research that shows that diets high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars is contributing to the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Excessive consumption of refined and over-processed carbohydrates is linked to inflammation — and inflammation inhibits fat burning.
- True: Alcohol is the very first fuel processed by the body and postpones metabolism of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, therefore, excess alcohol promotes belly fat.Alcohol is high in calories compared to protein and carbs — 7 calories per gram compared to 4 — and when you mix that alcohol with a sugar-sweetened beverage or juice, it’s double-trouble. Studies also show alcohol interferes with the hormones that regulate satiety and can loosen inhibitions and undermine your willpower to eat healthfully.
- True: There are at least two ways in which the foods you choose can aid fat loss. First, mechanically. Think of foods that need some “work” to eat — eating them burns more calories. My favorite example is nuts. If they are unshelled, you have to “work” to get them out of their shells! Then, since they’re very fibrous, you need to chew them pretty well. Then, your digestive system works to extract the nutrients. Another example is whole grains vs. refined white flour and white rice. Your body needs to “work” harder to digest whole grains. Foods that are very quickly eaten and absorbed contribute to obesity. Juice is my pet peeve — most fruits and vegetables contain a substantial amount of beneficial fiber, found only in plant foods — whole fruits and vegetables require mastication and digestion. But juice is just a processed food — the juicer or blenderizer does all the mastication for you and you wind up consuming what would be the equivalent of many servings in one glass.
In juice, you dump out the filling fiber, and what’s left is just fructose (fruit sugar) in water. A Vitamix or blender will leave the pulp but the processing still contributes to over-feeding – read more here). The second way that foods can contribute to fat loss is flavonoids — a 2016 study of 124,000 middle-aged and older people found that those who ate foods rich in flavonoids called anthocyanins — including strawberries, cherries, blackberries, blueberries, grapes, and radishes — maintained their weight better compared to those who did not.
- It Depends! Anatomy is destiny and wherever you are genetically programmed to store your excess weight is where you will store your excess weight. But where you tend to accumulate body fat can change over time, especially for women — research shows that after menopause women are more likely to gain belly fat because of hormonal shifts and slowing metabolism. To lose body fat see my 5-Point Program below.
- True & False: All calories are not equal, and the quality of your diet is just as important as the number of calories you consume. Strength training helps build lean muscle mass, combating a slowing metabolism — with resistance training you can create a slimmer looking you. And don’t forget to get enough sleep to keep your hormones healthy too.
- False: Spot exercises won’t specifically reduce fat around your belly, but some exercises will strengthen your core muscles. The belly fat that sits on top of those muscles will melt away with a better diet, and aerobic activity, such as fast walking, running, swimming, dancing, biking, and tennis.
How did you do?
The takeaway is that belly fat is not just a cosmetic issue. There are two types of stored fat — subcutaneous fat is the visible, outer layer that’s pinchable. The more dangerous visceral fat lies hidden around your internal organs, and this stored fat releases harmful hormones and inflammatory compounds that can increase your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, colorectal cancer, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and other health problems.
To get rid of belly fat — or any stored fat in your butt or thighs you must change the status quo. Here is my 5-Step Program that will get results. No un-tried and un-true supplements or expensive exercise equipment necessary.
- Think whole. In everything you eat. Instead of juice, choose whole servings of fruit and vegetables. Eat whole grains instead of refined. When dining out (especially for almuerzo) request más ensalada instead of white rice. At home cook quinoa instead of brown rice — it is much higher in protein, minerals, and fiber than rice — even brown rice. Research shows that replacing refined grains with whole grains resulted in an increased loss of body fat, be it belly fat or butt fat.
- Choose healthy fats and protein.
Fat from nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and avocado are all linked to better health. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, found in walnuts, sunflower seeds, and fatty fish like salmon, and offer anti-inflammatory effects in the body. Trans fats are out. Period. Avoid any products that say, “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” fat — usually found in packaged cookies, cakes, and crackers. If you’re dining out, ask if they use “shortening” — another name for trans fat. Buy organic, cold-pressed oils: sunflower, sesame, avocado, olive oil and canola oil — avoid chemically extracted or heat-treated oils (read the label). If you’re cooking over high heat, choose peanut or grape seed oil for their high smoke points. There is some evidence that getting a greater percentage of your calories from protein (animal and/or vegetable) may help aid weight loss and maintenance and preservation of muscle mass especially for those over 60. ‘More’ protein corresponds to eating less refined carbohydrates like white flour, juice, and of course, added sugars. You can choose lean animal protein from dairy, beef, eggs, poultry, and fish, but also from whole grains, quinoa, legumes, nuts, and vegetables.
- Move more: Activity can’t undo an unhealthy diet, but consistent activity is the key to a slim, healthy body — and belly. Many experts advise interval training to burn fat. Read more here. Resistance training is especially effective for losing fat and trimming down, and resistance bands are a convenient and economical way to get strong and lean. As reported in com, “Although cardio provides the fastest way to burn calories, strengthening your muscles is essential for weight loss because lean muscle mass boosts your metabolism and burns more fat. Resistance training also helps you lose fat alone, rather than muscle.”
- Know what you need: excess calories will be stored as fat. If you don’t tend to store your excess calories in your belly, excess fat will increase the size of your butt! To see approximately how much food and activity you need daily to gain, maintain or lose weight, sign up for a free online nutrition and fitness tracker program, such as MyFitnessPal.com or SparkPeople.com.
- Don’t fall for scams. No dietary supplement has been shown to be safe and effective at promoting belly-fat loss — but they will lighten your wallet! From the US Federal Trade Commission: Dietary supplements may seem like harmless health boosters. But while some have proven benefits, many don’t. Unlike drugs, dietary supplements aren’t evaluated or reviewed by FDA for safety and effectiveness, and even “natural” supplements can be risky depending on the medicines you take or the medical conditions you have. In recent years, hundreds of supplements also have been found to be tainted with drugs and other chemicals. Always talk to your doctor before you take a new supplement, and avoid any supplement claiming it’s a “cure.”
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Are refined carbohydrates worse than saturated fat?
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Substituting whole grains for refined grains in a 6-wk randomized trial favorably affects energy-balance metrics in healthy men and postmenopausal women.
BBC News. Alcohol flips brain into hungry mode.
CuencaHighLife.com. How juicing is overrated.
Everyday Health. Belly Fat: Sorting Science from Scams.
Harvard Medical School. Family Health Guide: Abdominal fat and what to do about it.
Journal of Obesity. High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss.
Livestrong.com. How to lose weight with resistance bands.
Science Daily. Just ‘weight’ until menopause: How estrogen deficiency affects women’s fat absorption.
The BMJ. Dietary flavonoid intake and weight maintenance: three prospective cohorts of 124,086 US men and women followed for up to 24 years.
U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Consumer Information: Dietary Supplements.
Susan Burke March, MEd, RDN, LDN, CDE, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally—a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to her at SusanTheDietitian@gmail.com