It’s time to get real about the dangers of belly fat, because it’s affecting more of us than ever before. According to the latest government stats, 26 per cent of British adults are classified as obese. That’s just over one in four people, meaning that Britain is on-track to become the fattest country in Europe by 2025. If current trends continue, forecasters have warned that half of us will be obese by 2045.
There’s one thing to like about visceral fat: It yields fairly easily to aerobic exercise. Vaporizing calories via running, biking, swimming—anything that gets your heart rate up—is an effective way to whittle your middle. In fact, one 2011 study from Duke University Medical Center, published in the American Journal of Physiology, found the sweet spot: Jogging the equivalent of 12 miles a week was even more effective in reducing visceral fat than resistance training three times per week. However, both types of exercise were beneficial when it came to belly fat, the researchers say. (Don’t have time to hit the gym? Try these fun at-home cardio workouts if you’re in a pinch.)
So it’s not uncommon for people to carry excessive amounts of fat (that we can’t see) around their vital organs despite not appearing to be overweight at all. These people have a phenomenon known as “skinny fat.” Skinny fat refers to someone who’s weight outwardly looks trim for their height, but have high levels of visceral fat inside and are susceptible to the same health problems as someone who is overweight such as high cholesterol or hypertension.
Repeat after us: It’s time to start eating clean. She recommends a combination of veggies, fruit, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, low-fat dairy and lean protein like poultry, eggs and fish for a dose of omega-3 fatty acids. And drop the added sugar while you’re at it. “Studies show that when you have a diet rich in whole grains — and calorie-controlled — that you can reduce the belly fat,” she says. But remember to watch your portions, too. “A lot of people eat very healthy and don’t eat junk, but their portions are too large.”
No belly-busting diet is complete without a super-charged arsenal of healthy, satiating snacks. By planning ahead for those times you get stuck—think traffic jams and long days at the office—you’ll be equipped to fight against any unhealthy temptations or poor food choices. “I would definitely have snacks planned throughout the day. It’s very important to eat throughout the day to make sure you’re not famished at some of the bigger meals. I would definitely have snack jars with things like granola bars, protein bars, almonds, dehydrated fruits, turkey jerky, and a lot of high-protein snacks stashed at work, in the car, or at home,” says White.
A 2015 study from Brown University found that you’re likely to have less belly fat if you have a high degree of “dispositional mindfulness” — where you’re naturally inclined to pay attention to your present thoughts and feelings. The researchers speculated that this kind of “everyday mindfulness” helps overcome the instinct to stock up on calories, which are not in short supply to use modern humans.
Eating foods that seem to target belly fat is just a starter strategy for getting rid of that gut. You'll see better, faster results if you exercise, too. In fact, just being more active in general helps. In one study of office workers, just standing up more often helped melt 1½ inches from people's waists. It doesn't take much—just a few extra hours a week of exercise may produce results. Learn how 3 extra hours of exercise per week affected belly size in a recent study.
Routinely squeaking by on five hours or less per night increases visceral fat levels, according to a 2010 Wake Forest University study. What’s more, after analyzing 28 different studies, UK researchers found that people who slept 5.5 hours or less per night ate an extra 385 calories the day after compared to those who snoozed for at least 7 to 12 hours. On top of that, they preferred to munch on fatty foods full of empty calories, like chips.
They may not be totally mainstream yet, but there's good reason to incorporate marine gems like nori, hijiki, wakame, arame, and kombu into your regular diet. "With omega-3 fatty acids not found in other plant foods, sea vegetables (or seaweed) are inflammation fighting powerhouses," says St.John. "Omega-3 fatty acids are potent inflammation-fighters, so sea vegetables can enhance your body's ability to suppress inflammation and may lead to a flatter belly." Note: Store-bought seaweed snacks can pack a lot of sodium (which can contribute to bloat), so be sure to scan nutrition labels before purchasing.
Want to lose that belly fat? In your dreams! Seriously, though: a good night’s sleep is one of the best ways to get rid of that extra fat around your waist for good. Among the 60,000 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study, those who snoozed for fewer than five hours a night were at the greatest risk of becoming obese and gaining 30 or more pounds over the course of the 16-year study period when compared to those who slept for seven or more hours.
Which means, sadly, the more glasses of rose and chocolate-coated pretzels you eat, the longer it will take to reach your flatter belly goals. “When you digest large amounts of calories, your body allocates some of these to functional systems which work to keep you alive (think the brain, muscles and organs),” says Belalij. “It also uses it to fill up energy stores. Any excess is then stored in fat cells around the body – typically being those of the belly.”