It’s no secret that Americans are getting rounder by the minute, with more and more people sporting a belly that’s bad news for their health, happiness, and even bank accounts.
Over half of U.S. adults now have central obesity (aka “belly fat”), defined as a waistline over 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men, up from 46 percent in 1999-2000, according to a 2014 study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The average U.S. waist size has also grown to an average of 38.8 inches in just over a decade.
But fear not, it’s not just about looking good in skinny jeans. Belly fat, or visceral fat, is the most dangerous type of fat there is, wrapping around your organs and putting you at a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and metabolic syndrome.
You may not be able to see or pinch visceral fat, but you can start shedding it today with these 10 healthy tweaks that not only improve your health but also help you lose weight and trim your waistline.
1. Ditch diet soda
How bad can your calorie-free Diet Coke habit be for your belly?
Belt-bustingly bad, researchers say.
A study in the journal Diabetes Pro found that people who drank two or more diet sodas a day had waist-size increases that were six times greater than non-drinkers.
Diet drinks are loaded with deceptively sweet artificial sweeteners, which, researchers say, trick the metabolism into thinking sugar is on its way, spike insulin levels, and shift the body from a fat-burning to a fat-storing state.
2. Eat three squares
For years, diet experts beat the “multiple small meals a day” drum—an eating rhythm purported to “stoke the metabolic fire!”
Now, some researchers are singing a different tune. A study published in the journal Hepatology found that snacking between meals contributes to increased abdominal fat.
Researchers say the findings suggest three balanced meals may be the way to go. Try weaning yourself off the snack wagon by nixing your morning nibble first.
Research suggests mid-morning snackers tend to consume more throughout the day than afternoon snackers.
3. Eat more walnuts
Dietary fats are kind of like lovers.
Some of them make you a better person, and others—as you often discover too late—are catastrophically bad for your health.
The good news is, unlike shoddy boyfriends, dietary fats come with red flags.
The absolutely worst match for your apple-shaped figure? Saturated fats.
A study published in the journal Diabetes found that while unsaturated fat can help reduce abdominal fat, saturated fat can increase waist size.
Saturated fats, like the kind you’ll find in baked goods and red meat, “turn on” certain genes that increase the storage of fat in the belly, researchers say.
Polyunsaturated fats on the other hand, activate genes that reduce fat storage and improve insulin metabolism.
At about 13 grams per one ounce serving, walnuts are one of the best dietary sources. Sprinkle a handful on your morning oats or entree salad for belly-busting benefits.
4. Skip the bootcamp
Open any fitness magazine, and it’s clear: high intensity interval training (HIIT) is having a bit of a moment.
But when it comes to your shrinking your belly, the start-and-stop exercise strategy won’t get you anywhere … other than into a larger pair of pants, researchers say.
A study published in the Journal of Obesity found people who performed interval training on an exercise bike for 24 minutes three days a week, actually gained 0.7 percent abdominal fat over a 12-week period.
Meanwhile, those on the same dietician-regulated diet, who performed traditional aerobic exercise—45 minutes of continuous moderate cycling three days a week—lost nearly 3 percent of their abdominal fat over the same 3-month period.
The study authors did note that HIIT improved fitness, but suggest that the only evidence to support interval training as an efficient weight loss method was research using young people who were already lean and healthy.
Remember: Workouts are only half of the equation; abs are made in the kitchen as they say.
5. Eat the magical beans, Jack
There are diet pills on the market that actually work. They’re called beans.
Researchers suggest beans, as they’re particularly rich in soluble fiber, can lessen the accumulation of abdominal fat deposits.
A study by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that for every 10-gram increase in soluble fiber eaten per day, visceral fat reduced by 3.7 percent over five years.
Fill up, without filling out, with just 1/2 a cup of beans.
If the musical fruits tend to leave you bloated, stick to canned varieties that have soaked long enough to break down much of the gas-causing oligosaccharides.
6. Swap coffee for green tea
Green tea and weight loss are a natural pair.
Sipping on green tea throughout the morning has proven to whittle your waist, but too much coffee has the opposite effect.
What makes green tea so waist friendly are compounds called catechins, belly-fat crusaders that blast adipose tissue by revving the metabolism, increasing the release of fat from fat cells (particularly in the belly), and then speeding up the liver’s fat burning capacity.
In a recent study, participants who combined a daily habit of 4-5 cups of green tea with a 25-minute sweat session (or 180 minutes a week), lost 2 more pounds than the non tea-drinking exercisers.
Meanwhile, a research team in Washington found that the same amount of coffee (5+ cups/day) doubled visceral belly fat.
7. Be unrefined
It’s not carbs, per se, that lead to belly fat; but the type, researchers say. In fact, whole grains are a dietary staple of people with the littlest middles.
A Tufts University study found that participants who ate three or more servings of whole grains per day (oats, quinoa, brown rice, wheat) had 10% less belly fat than people who ate the same amount of calories from refined carbs (white stuff: bread, rice, pasta).
Further research is required to figure out exactly why this is the case, but the hypothesis is it has to do with the high fiber and slow-burn properties of whole grains.
When it comes to diet, being unrefined is a good thing!
8. Sprinkle pepper everywhere
Meet Piperine, the fat blasting ninja!
A powerful compound found in black pepper, piperine has been used for centuries in Eastern medicine to treat multiple health conditions including inflammation and tummy troubles.
But recent animal studies have found that piperine may also have the profound ability to decrease inflammation and interfere with the formation of new fat cells—a reaction known as adipogenesis, resulting in a decrease in waist size, body fat, and cholesterol levels.
More pepper, please!
9. Use coconut oil for cooking
What smells like an exotic vacation and can shrink your waist faster than your favorite Zumba class?
You got it: coconut oil.
A study of 30 men in the journal Pharmacology found that just 2 tablespoons per day reduced waist circumference by an average of 1.1 inches over the course of a month.
What makes coconut oil superior to other fats is its medium chain triglycerides. Unlike the long-chain fatty acids found in animal sources of saturated fat, coconut oil doesn’t seem to raise your cholesterol and is more likely to be burned as energy than stored as blubber.
At roughly 117 calories per tablespoon, it’s a near identical caloric swap for olive oil. Plus, its high smoke point makes coconut oil great for just about every dish, from eggs to stir-frys.
10. Indulge in dark chocolate
It’s every chocoholic’s dream: Research now shows that eating moderate amounts of dark chocolate can reduce overall body fat and shrink the waist.
A study among women with normal weight obesity (skinny fat syndrome) who ate a Mediterranean diet that included two servings of dark chocolate each day showed a significant reduction in waist size than when on a cocoa-free meal plan.
Researchers say it has to do with the flavonoids, heart-healthy compounds in chocolate that have important antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Just be sure you’re reaching for a bar with at least 70 percent cacao, and stay away from the “alkalized” stuff, which has a significantly reduced flavonoid content.