Myths vs Reality in the Fight Against Belly Fat

There's an abs diet, a flat-belly diet and a host of other plans out there for getting rid of a paunch. But is there really a specific exercise formula or particular food that can give you Michael Phelps-like abs without swimming eight hours a day?

Not exactly. But there are some foods that hurt more than they help when it comes to turning an apple shape into an hourglass. And as for exercise, the key may be less about which kinds of crunches you choose and more about doing it at all. Rather than buying into a one-size-fits-all program, it's a good idea to take your age and your natural body shape into consideration when devising a targeted diet and exercise plan.

Here, we take some of the most popular belly-fat busting prescriptions and tell you which work and which don't—and why—so you can come up with your own flat-abs strategy.

1. Location, Location, Location. It matters where your fat is stored. Abdominal fat is linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Sorry, apple-shaped people: fab abs are about more than just vanity. Women with waists larger than 34-inches and men with waists larger than 40-inches are at greatest risk of heart disease—especially if their fat is "visceral" and around organs like the liver (instead of being just the jiggly surface variety).

2. Quantity Still Counts. "Cut calories—and lose belly fat," says Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. "The notion that you're going to eat a specific food and mobilize belly fat, usually it's a bit of a gimmick. [When] 'calories-in' fall below 'calories-out,' you will lose weight."

3. Mother Nature Rules. "The way to get rid of body fat in specific places is to have different parents," says Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington. "You have no control where it goes." While you can't change your genes, you can stay extra vigilant about gaining weight if you know your family tends to be of the apple-shaped variety. And even if belly fat isn't a family legacy, everyone tends to gain weight around the waist as they get older, so you will probably have to work harder to keep that belly flat later in life. That's particularly true for women after menopause.

5. Work It Out. Naturally it helps to exercise, but not just because any abdominal-strengthening activity will lead to a flatter belly. Exercise also reduces stress and insulin levels. "If insulin levels go up, cortisol, which is a counter-regulatory hormone, goes up as well," says Yale's Dr. Katz. "More fat means more insulin; more insulin means more counter-regulatory hormones, which means more fat in the belly."

6. Foods to Avoid. While there's no single culprit, there are food ingredients that can make it harder to lose weight around your waist. Trans fats seem to promote abdominal fat deposition and the apple body shape, says Lawrence Rudel, professor of pathology and biochemistry at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. (Trans fats are in some margarines, crackers, cookies and other foods made with partially hydrogenated oils.) In a study, Rudel found that trans-fat fed monkeys deposited 30 percent more fat in their abdomens than monounsaturated-fat fed monkeys.

7. Belly-Fat Fighting Foods. "It's too much responsibility to put on any one food," says Drewnowski. "One thing to have a flat belly is to have low body fat, period. If you have no body fat, you will have a flat belly—but also a flat behind." (But, for a temporarily flatter belly—say, for a bikini day—avoid bulky, high-volume foods such as salads, says Drewnowski. Some coffee, which contains the diuretic caffeine, will also get rid of extra water and give extra slimness for the day.)

As for long-term benefits, there may be no magic bullet foods, but there are some foods that may help if they're part of a healthy diet, and others that are simply good for your cardiovascular system, which is especially important if you tend to gain abdominal fat. Here's a quick rundown:

Whole Grains. In a study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers at Penn State compared 25 obese adults eating whole grains vs. 25 obese adults eating refined grains, for 12 weeks. Both groups lost the same amount of weight (an average of eight to 11 pounds), but the whole-grain eaters lost double the fat in the belly area. Good sources of whole grains: whole-grain cereal, oatmeal, brown rice and barley, says registered dietitian Heather Katcher, coauthor of the Penn State study. One possible reason is that whole grains contain more fiber, which helps slow digestion and prevent blood sugar from increasing too quickly and, as a result, helps keep insulin levels lower. She adds that lower insulin levels appear to decrease fat-cell size in the abdominal region. However, whole grains are no panacea, you still have to make other healthy lifestyle choices.

Tart Cherries. Try a "tart heart smart diet," says Dr. Steven F. Bolling, professor of cardiac surgery at the University of Michigan and coauthor of a recently presented study that showed tart-cherry enriched diets reduced "central adiposity," (fat around your middle) along with inflammation and triglycerides (known risk factors for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease) in rats. The anthocyanins in tart cherries are probably what made rats who ate them (in powdered form) less likely to gain weight as belly fat, he says. Like apples and oats, cherries are a good source of soluble fiber, which seems to lower insulin levels. It can't hurt to eat cherries. "They're tasty," says Bolling. "I eat 'em."

Oils. Packed with healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, oils made from canola, safflower, sesame, soybean, walnut, flaxseed, sunflower, olive and peanut oil are all recommended in the "Flat Belly Diet." Even if they don't lead to washboard abs, they're a healthy-and-filling ingredient in a Mediterranean-style diet. And, if you are predisposed to accumulating belly fat and cardiovascular problems, they're especially helpful. For example: flaxseed and walnut oil contain alpha-linolenic acid, which the body converts into good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids; and olive oil contains phytochemicals called polyphenols, which can help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. Use sparingly though, since 1 tablespoon of olive oil contains 119 calories (all from fat).

Olives. Also recommended in "Flat Belly Diet," olives contain monounsaturated fatty acids, iron, vitamin E, copper and fiber. Fiber helps control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Eight kalamatas contain 68 calories (61 of them from fat), so just eat a few at a time.

Nuts and Seeds. Nuts and seeds are high in calories—but packed with nutrients such as potassium, protein, fiber, iron, zinc, magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin E, notes registered dietitian Cynthia Sass, creator of the "Flat Belly Diet." Some, like sunflower seeds and walnuts contain linoleic acid or omega-3 fatty acids which are good for heart health. Don't go crazy: just 23 almonds (1 ounce) contain 164 calories.

Dark Chocolate. This yummy treat contains good HDL cholesterol-boosting flavanols and proanthocyanins and minerals such as magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, calcium and iron. Cocoa reduces the risk of blood clots, increases the flow of blood in the arteries and may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels—and may even boost mood by increasing serotonin and endorphin levels. Look for varieties made with at least 70 percent cocoa. One ounce contains 136 calories.

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