To gain major health rewards, shed the weight around your middle with this two-part plan.
By Dr. Mehmet Oz
A trim midsection is good for many things, like fitting into your favorite jeans or walking the beach in a swimsuit with confidence. But there are even better reasons to work off extra baggage around your stomach. That baggage, known as visceral fat, isn't just the most annoying kind -- it's also the most dangerous. As it forms between your organs, deep within your abdominal cavity, it secretes proteins that can trigger chronic inflammation, putting you at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
One easy way to find out if you're carrying too much abdominal fat is to wrap a measuring tape around your body at the top of your hipbones. If your number is more than 35 inches, it may be time to take action. The good news: Getting rid of belly fat is simpler than you might think. With the right plan, it's actually easier to lose than stubborn lower-body fat or the seemingly impossible to tone back-of-the-arm flab. Stick to these diet and exercise guidelines, and you'll be slimmer -- and healthier -- by summer.
Fight Fat With Food
Obviously, you want to keep your calories in a healthy range and avoid meals that are high in saturated fat. But research has also shown that eating more of certain foods can help you burn excess visceral fat and pave the way to a smaller middle.
In addition to helping maintain heart health and keep inflammation levels under control, monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs, may stop belly fat before it starts. Research in the journal Diabetes Care found that people who got roughly 25 percent of their total daily calories from MUFAs gained no visceral fat over the course of the study, while those who ate less MUFAs and more carbs added fat to their midsections. My favorite MUFA-rich food is olive oil because you can use it in so many meals (check out the belly-blasting breakfast I recommend), but avocados and nuts are other excellent sources. Pine nuts are particularly great because they also contain high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids. These acids increase levels of two hormones that signal your brain when you're full. Try snacking on one ounce of pine nuts (about the amount you can fit in a shot glass) 20 minutes before mealtime to avoid overeating.
People with chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol tend to carry excess visceral fat. Foods that are high on the glycemic index (GI), which uses a ranking system of 0 to 100, cause more rapid spikes in your blood sugar, in turn triggering the release of cortisol when glucose levels crash. The constant up and down of your blood sugar levels can also lead to insulin resistance -- the first step on the road to type 2 diabetes. To help keep cortisol levels stable, choose low-GI foods (with a rating of 55 or less) like beans, lentils, and chickpeas, instead of high-GI options like white rice and potatoes. To find the GI rating of your foods, use the University of Sydney's database at glycemicindex.com.
A 2012 study in the Journal of Functional Foods found that people who drank one and a half cups of green tea enriched with a total of 609 milligrams of catechins (a group of antioxidants that have been shown to help burn fat cells) every day for 12 weeks lost almost 16 times as much visceral fat as those who consumed green tea without the added antioxidants. To achieve similar results with store-bought green tea, you'll need to brew two to four cups daily (many varieties can contain 160 to 470 milligrams of catechins per cup).
When your body is low on calcium, it produces a hormone that signals the body to store visceral fat. Meeting your recommended daily calcium needs (that's 1,000 milligrams for adults) can help reduce levels of this hormone. And a recent study published in Obesity Research found that calcium from dairy has a stronger effect than calcium from other sources. I recommend eating low-fat Greek yogurt as a daily snack (just six ounces contain about 20 percent of your recommended dietary allowance for calcium), though any low-fat dairy will do.
Core exercises will strengthen your abs, but they won't eliminate the fat that lies beneath them. To do that, you have to ramp up your overall calorie burn with cardio (running, walking, biking). A Duke University study found that people who did moderate cardio for 178 minutes per week (roughly 30 minutes of walking six days per week) gained hardly any visceral fat over the course of eight months. Participants who worked out at a higher intensity (jogging) for a similar amount of time saw even better results -- reducing their belly fat by almost 7 percent. To maximize your workout, try interval training, which alternates between high- and low-intensity cardio.
Once you've established a regular cardio routine, add two or three weight training sessions on nonconsecutive days to your weekly workouts; everyone naturally gains some fat as they age, but building muscle tone can significantly slow the production of belly fat. In a study conducted at the University of Minnesota, overweight women who did twice-weekly strength training routines that included eight to 10 exercises of major muscle groups, from biceps curls to leg presses, gained 67 percent less visceral fat over two years than women who didn't do strength training regularly.