"Five foods that will flatten your tummy!" This headline can be counted on to sell magazines and get plenty of clicks. But is there any science behind these so-called fat-burning foods?
Well, yes and no. Certain food and lifestyle choices can help you reduce fat around your middle. (And at the end of this article, I'll give you my top 6 tips for whittling your waistline.) But belly fat doesn't just appear or disappear in response to specific foods. So what's the deal with all these fat-melting foods? Most of the foods you'll see on such lists fall into one of two categories.
1. Foods that Prevent Blood Sugar Spikes.
Examples of this category of "flat-belly foods" include salmon, avocado, olive oil, almonds, and dried beans. Do these foods literally burn belly fat? Not really. But foods that contain protein, fat, and/or fiber are relatively slowly digested and absorbed, so they are less likely to cause a sharp increase in blood sugar. These foods can even slow down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates from other foods that they are eaten with.
The idea here is that when your blood sugar zooms up (as it does when you eat sweets or refined carbohydrates), it sets into motion a hormonal cascade that promotes the storage of abdominal fat. The hope is that avoiding blood sugar spikes will also help prevent belly fat. And there is some research to support this theory.
See also: What is High Glucose?
There are other potential benefits as well. Foods that are higher in protein and fiber can also regulate your appetite and help you to avoid overeating. (See also: How to Eat Less without Being Hungry.) However, make no mistake: No matter what type of food you choose, if you consume more calories than you need, the excess calories will be stored as fat.
See also: Are Some Calories More Fattening than Others?
2. Foods that Increase Metabolism.
Examples of this second category of "flat-belly foods" are green tea, cayenne pepper, vinegar, as well as anything high in protein, such as eggs, meat, and fish.
These foods supposedly boost your metabolism, causing your body to burn through your fat reserves -- including the fat around your middle. While it's true that these foods can increase your metabolism, the devil is in the details. A cup of green tea or a teaspoon of cayenne pepper might cause you to burn an extra ten or twenty calories per day, but it takes 3,500 calories to burn off a pound of fat. Feel free to include these metabolism boosters in your diet but don't expect miracles.
Another tried and true way to increase your metabolism and reduce abdominal fat is to add more exercise to your routine. In particular, focus on interval and strength training. A recent study found that alternating between brief, high intervals and recovery intervals was far more effective in reducing belly fat than exercising at a steady pace. Increasing your lean muscle mass with strength training will further increase the number of calories you burn and help reduce body fat.
How Cortisol Levels Affect Belly Fat
There's one other strategy that may help you to trim your mid-section. Cortisol is a hormone that's secreted in response to stress. (And who among us doesn't have plenty of stress these days?) Here's the problem: Chronically high cortisol levels have been linked to increased belly fat.
Of course, ratcheting down the stress in your life is probably easier said than done. Replacing your daily commute with an hour on a meditation cushion may not be an option. However, most of us could turn off the TV (or tablet) an hour earlier and hit the sack -- and this can have a profound and immediate effect on your cortisol levels. Your body perceives the lack of sleep as stress, you see. Those who skimp on sleep tend to have higher cortisol levels, which may help explain why under-sleeping is consistently linked with weight gain.
6 Tips for Reducing Belly Fat
To sum up, here are my top six tips for avoiding a flabby tummy. (It's no coincidence that these same strategies will also help you reduce your risk of disease and slow down the aging process!)
1. Limit your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates. (See: How to Reduce Sugar Intake)
2. Choose foods that are high in protein and fiber. (Those lists of "flat-belly foods" will fit quite nicely into this scheme.)
3. Don't overeat. It's important to choose healthy foods but you also need to eat them in quantities that allow you to maintain a healthy body weight.
4. Be as active as possible.
5. Do what you can to minimize stress. (At the very least, learn good stress management skills.)
6. Make quality sleep a priority.