Tight deadlines, bills, your kids—whatever your source of stress, having too much of it may make it harder for you to drop unwanted pounds, especially from your middle. And it's not just because you tend to reach for high-fat, high-calorie fare when you're stressed, though that's part of it. It's also due to the stress hormone cortisol, which may increase the amount of fat your body clings to and enlarge your fat cells. Higher levels of cortisol have been linked to more visceral fat.
Thanks to the hormone estrogen, the female body likes to hold on to fat, too. A study in Obesity Reviews shows that women store fat more efficiently than men in an effort to prepare the body for pregnancy. But while it seems like women may have drawn the short-end of the stick, the stereotypical pear-shape is actually considered healthier than boasting a beer gut, because belly fat is a red flag when it comes to your health. “Visceral fat is associated with increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome,” says Harris-Pincus.
Consider this specially-bred strain of seaweed the protein-packed answer to your prayers. Eating just a little of it each day (seriously, you only need three grams — or one heaping teaspoon — to get your fill, says nutritionist Tali Pines, R.D.) will give you a hefty dose of important antioxidants like beta-carotene and echinenone, both of which help curb cravings and fight illness. Bonus: the levels of beta-carotene found in Hawaiian spirulina suppress cholesterol levels (great news for your heart), and the high levels of iron improve weakness and fatigue so you have enough mojo for your next workout. Get your fix by popping a daily supplement, adding it to your morning smoothie, or simply stirring a spoonful of the powdered version (which is the most easily digestible, according to Pines) into a glass of water.
You know that choosing the right types of fats is key, and here's why: Unhealthy fats, found in processed foods, meats, and cheeses, feed the type of bacteria that spark inflammation and cue your body to store fat, says Lipman. But healthy fats high in omega 3s and 6s — like those in avocado, nuts, olive oil, and salmon — do the opposite. They provide long-burning energy by regulating how quickly glucose enters your cells, keeping hunger at bay. Top a sandwich with mashed avocado, or make a summery side salad with chopped avocado, cherry tomatoes, basil, and lemon juice.
Our increasingly slothful lifestyles are partly to blame for skyrocketing obesity rates, so it’s no surprise that being more active is a simple fix for belly fat. In 2003, a first-of-its-kind study from Duke University showed that sedentary adults accumulated abdominal fat surprisingly quickly — and that sedentary women stacked on fat more visceral fat than sedentary men, even though they added less fat overall.
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.
As said before, measuring your waist with the tape is the easiest way to check belly fat. Measure your torso at the level of your navel. As per the official guidelines, measure your abdomen from just above the hip bone or the iliac crest, just where it intersects the line dropping down from the middle of the right armpit. Breathe normally while taking the measurement, and don’t hold the measuring tape too tight against the skin. Those with a waist size more than 33 inches are at risk of developing chronic heart disease.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first: unfortunately, there's no way to shrink specific parts of the body, which means you can't simply target belly fat. But that doesn't mean you can't work toward a trimmer waist. You just can't rely on crunches, planks, or sit-ups. Instead, it's all about putting yourself in a healthy calorie deficit, forming good habits, and doing full-body workouts that help you burn maximum calories. Here are some reliable tips to help you reach your goals.
In a 2012 study in the journal Obesity, subjects who increased their soluble fiber intake by 10 grams a day—the equivalent of two small apples, one cup of green peas, and one half-cup of pinto beans—reduced visceral fat by 3.7 percent after five years. Even more, participants who also engaged in moderate physical activity (exercising vigorously two to four times a week) experienced a 7.4 decrease in visceral fat over the same period of time.