“The Big Apple” is a nickname for New York City, but it might as well refer to the entire country. Because Americans, research suggests, are getting more and more apple-shaped by the minute—adding inches to their bellies that pose an immediate threat to their health, happiness, even financial futures. Fifty-four percent of U.S. adults now have central obesity (colloquially referred to as “belly fat,” and clinically defined as a waistline of more than 35 inches in women and more than 40 inches in men), up from 46 percent in 1999-2000, according to a September 2014 study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The average U.S. waist circumference has also grown to an average 38.8 inches, up more than 1 inch in about a dozen years. It’s more than a fashion crisis. Belly fat, or visceral fat, is the most dangerous type of fat there is. This deadly fat wraps around the organs deep in your abdomen, spiking your risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke and metabolic syndrome. You can’t see or pinch visceral fat, and it’s often associated with a large waist. Ditch it and you’ll not only save your health, you’ll also lose weight and trim your waistline.
The good news is you can start blasting both types of fat today with these 10 healthy habits, inspired by the New York Times bestseller Zero Belly Diet.
Ditch Diet Soda
How bad can your calorie-free Diet Coke habit be for your belly? Belt-bustingly bad, researchers say. Researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio 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.
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.
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.
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 notes 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.
Make Room for Musical Fruit
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.
Swap Your Cup of Joe 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. An American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory study found that 4 cups of green tea may boost exercise endurance by up to 24 percent while burning fat for energy. Meanwhile, an Australian study found that the same amount of coffee (5+ cups/day) doubled visceral belly fat.
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!
Sprinkle Pepper on Your Meals
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 a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 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!
Swap Cooking Oils for Coconut Oil
What smells like an exotic vacation and can help you lose belly fat faster than your favorite Zumba class? You got it: coconut oil. A study of 30 men in the journal ISRN 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.
Indulge in Dark Chocolate
It’s every chocoholic’s dream: Research now shows that eating moderate amounts of dark chocolate can help you lose belly fat. A 2018 study found that at least one ounce (one serving) of dark chocolate each day showed a significant reduction in weight and BMI. 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.