Belly fat, your time is up. Scientists now know more than ever about what makes fat accumulate around your middle—and what can take it off. One important thing to keep in mind is this: Your extra fat is really just trying to tell you something. Like the swelling around a twisted ankle, extra puffiness around your middle could be a sign that something's wrong inside, thanks to what you've been eating or how much you've been sitting around.
Fortunately, you can heal your expanding waistline just as you would any swollen, injured area. Bring down the inflammation, flush out the waste, and get moving again.
Here's what that looks like in your day: plate after plate of belly-flattening foods (yes, peach melba parfait; yes, pasta with fresh farmers market finds), plus a smart workout to tighten your middle. Follow this plan and you could drop two pounds a week—and end up wearing a smaller dress size by this time next month.
Fill up on Flat-Belly Foods
Shrinking your middle isn't just about how much you eat; it's about which foods you choose. For the best results, eat from all five of the flattening groups here (including spicy condiments for a flavor kick). Our easy plan builds them all into delicious, 1,500-calorie days: three meals and two snacks a day with little to no cooking time required.
One factor plumping your belly may be bloat (accumulated gas and/or fluid that makes your belly pooch). Of course, the smartest way to tackle bloat is to avoid it in the first place: That means skipping soda, alcohol, and fried and processed foods—and eating more of the foods that can help speed away that bloated feeling. Try these easy three:
If that offers no relief, consider this: "Lactose and gluten intolerances can also lead to bloating," says Robynne Chutkan, M.D., of the Digestive Center for Women in Chevy Chase, MD. A small group of people may need to skip dairy and choose rice over wheat products to fight bloat. If you're one of them, it may take two to four weeks until you notice a difference.
The inside of your gut is an amazing place where millions of good bacteria, called probiotics, live. They help break down the food you eat so your body can use it for fuel. And you can get more of these helpful bacteria by eating the right foods. Consuming probiotics in what you eat can help soothe digestion so food passes through with less gurgles and gas.
Research hints that probiotics may help your body lose fat, too. In one particularly revealing study, overweight people who kept their calories constant but changed their diets to include probiotic-rich yogurt lost up to 4% of their body fat after six weeks. Probiotics aren't magic, of course. "You can't just add them on top of a sugar- and starch-filled diet and expect to lose weight," says Chutkan. Our flat-belly plan includes these easy-to-find probiotic options:
- Aged Parmesan cheese
But don't stop there. You also need to keep the probiotics in your gut healthy by feeding them right. Probiotics love to feast on certain foods (called prebiotics), so you want to fill up on those, too. Good sources include:
- Barely ripe bananas
- Brown rice
The foods you eat help to either calm or create inflammation throughout your body, says Stanford-based adjunct nutrition scientist Stacy Sims, Ph.D. And monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs and PUFAs) are on the calming side. "When you have decreased inflammation in your body, you use the fats you eat as fuel," she says. In other words, your body is less likely to hoard fat.
MUFAs are plentiful in foods including olive oil, almonds, and avocados; PUFAS are found in vegetable oils and in nuts and seeds, including pumpkin and sunflower seeds. There's evidence that these fats may even help your body burn fat, especially around your middle. So when including fats in your day, rely on the ones listed here:
- Canola oil
- Olive oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
Protein is helpful when you're losing weight because it helps keep your blood sugar stable, which is useful in fending off cravings and, therefore, late-night refrigerator raids.
Protein also plays another key role: It maintains your muscles, which are the calorie-burning furnaces of your body. Unfortunately, when you cut calories to lose weight, you often end up losing muscle with your fat. But research has found that dieters who ate 90 grams of protein a day lost more fat and kept more muscle than people who ate lower amounts, says nutrition expert Donald K. Layman, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois. Choosing the "higher protein options" marked on the following pages can get you there. Healthy sources of protein include:
- Beans (legumes)
- Part-skim Ricotta
- 1% milk
- Skinless chicken
On their own, these spicy toppers won't take you down a size, of course. But some research shows they may give you a little extra power over your fat. And they'll certainly give your meals some added zing:
- Hot Sauce, like Sriracha
Flush The System
Don't forget water! "I see a lot of people whose bellies are distended because they have waste sitting in their colons and don't have the fluid to flush it out," says gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan, M.D. You should be drinking enough water so your pee is the color of light lemonade.
This story originally appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.