You may not be overweight, but you still have a “muffin top” that’s driving you crazy. If you find yourself with extra weight around the middle, there’s more to think about than the way your jeans fit. Recent studies show that where you store body fat can play a role in your health, and belly fat carries the highest risk. Women with love handles are more susceptible to conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, and a study by Harvard researchers shows that these women are even more likely to die early from heart disease and cancer — even if their weights are normal.
Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to stay out of the danger zone. Follow these eight simple strategies to blast fat, tighten your midsection and be your healthiest at any weight.
Fill up on fiber.
Eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains can help you lose belly fat without feeling deprived, says Maggie Davis, MS, RD. And the studies agree: Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that people who fill up on fiber have lower waist circumferences. To add more fiber-rich produce to your diet, bring an apple to work, keep some dried fruit in your purse or have a fruit or vegetable shake for breakfast. Remember that you can include fresh, frozen, canned, puréed or juiced servings.
Are you a frappuccino kind of gal? Consider switching to green tea. A study in Journal of Nutrition found that consuming a beverage containing green tea catechins might help promote abdominal fat loss. To get the same results, drink approximately five cups of green tea a day — that’s one with each of your daily meals.
Rethink that drink.
“Alcohol, specifically wine with up to 15 to 22 percent total ethanol content, may increase abdominal fat and fat stores in general,” Kievit says. That’s because it contains seven calories per gram — more than protein and carbs, which both contain four carbs per gram. So what should you do when you’re socializing among drinkers? Try carrying a clutch: It will keep your hands occupied, and you’ll avoid drinking simply for the sake of holding on to something. You could also offer to be the designated driver — you’ll get lean and your friends will love you!
Increase your cardio intensity.
Go beyond steady-state cardio — high-intensity interval training can add some serious punch to your belly-tightening program. To do it, alternate between short bursts of low-intensity cardio and short bursts of high-intensity activity. When performed on a treadmill, it would look something like this: Start with a five-minute warm-up of just walking. Then run your fastest or jog on the highest incline you can handle for 60 seconds. Then slow down to the walk for another minute. Then go back to your all-out sprint for another 60 seconds. Repeat the cycle for 15 to 20 minutes. “High-intensity interval training is very effective in ‘shocking’ the body out of a routine mode,” says Lauren Shaw, a certified personal trainer from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Eat smaller portions, more often.
To help speed your fat burn, eat five to six small meals a day instead of two or three larger ones. “When we eat more than our body needs, the excess is sent to the liver to be turned into fat and sent nearby to the abdominal area for storage,” Davis says. Each of your small meals should consist of at least one portion of protein, one portion of carbohydrates and a small portion of fat. Use your hand as a guide — each portion should be about the same size as your hand making a fist. Eat breakfast within one hour of waking, and then eat about every three hours after that, stopping approximately three hours before bed.
Be sugar savvy.
If you want to rid yourself of belly fat, you need to pay attention to food labels. That’s because simple sugars can make you fat. In a 10-week study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, study participants who consumed fructose- and glucose-sweetened beverages packed on pounds — and the fructose group saw a significantly higher volume of belly fat. Many processed foods contain added sugars, so stick with a clean diet and avoid products with these words on the label: fructose, glucose, sucrose, maltose, honey, liquid sugar, invert sugar, syrup, galactose, dextrose, dextrin, corn syrup solids, molasses.
Vary your training.
Rather than trying to crunch away all of your belly fat, Tina Claire, a certified personal trainer based in West Hollywood, California, recommends a whole-body approach to training. “You cannot spot reduce, so doing crunches alone won’t do the trick,” she says. Instead, Tina suggests mixing 20-minute sessions of high-intensity interval cardio (See tip eight for more details), 30-minute sessions of slow-and-steady cardio and 35-minute sessions of weight training every week. Then perform abs exercises three times per week after regular workouts.
Make friends with (the right types of) fat.
According to Robyn Kievit, RD, family nurse practitioner of Boston, Massachusetts, not all fats go straight to your waistline. “Individuals who eat diets rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are less likely to store fat in their bellies,” she says. Pistachios, which are loaded with antioxidants, are a great source of such healthy fats. Keep a stash at work and consume an ounce per day (about 47 shelled pistachios) instead of your typical vending-machine snack. Just remember to take a handful out of the bag before you start munching so you don’t eat more than planned.