How to Lose Belly Fat with Four Simple Food Swaps

Don't worry, these science-backed swaps are still tasty.

Pop quiz! What's the worst thing about belly fat? Is it:

A) The top button that popped off your pants at lunch,

B) The well-meaning stranger who asked you if it was a boy or girl, or

C) The beautiful dress at the back of your closet that just. Won't. Zip.

Those three options are unpleasant, but they're nothing compared to D) Higher risk of metabolic syndrome, which can lead to diabetes, stroke or heart disease, according to Mayo Clinic.

There are two types of belly fat: subcutaneous — the pinchable top layer that's responsible for options A through C — and visceral, which is the deeper and more dangerous fat that hugs your organs. Although you can't target and burn fat in isolated areas of the body (a myth called spot reduction), you can make some simple diet swaps to boost your body's ability to lose fat in a healthy way.

"If your diet is rich in foods that trigger inflammation, like processed foods and saturated fat, you'll carry more weight around your middle. You may find even if you're cutting calories and the number on the scale goes down, your waistline may not shrink much," says Erin Palinksi-Wade, RD, author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies.

Here are four simple food swaps that can help get you on the road to a flatter middle.

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1. Swap Whole Grains for Refined Grains

Wild and brown rice are fiber-rich whole grains that leave you feeling fuller, which helps prevent overeating. Even better, whole grains are associated with a lower weight and waist circumference. Cereal fiber (found in the bran part of whole grains) is especially good at preventing an expanding waistline, according to a 2010 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. As the name suggests, whole grain means the entire grain is left intact, providing more nutrients.

Then there are refined grains, such as white rice, which are stripped of their bran and germ during processing. That's why it's not just important to eat more whole grains, but also cut back on refined ones. Case in point: Several studies have found that eating more whole grains in place of refined grains helps reduce body fat, including abdominal fat.

When you buy wild or brown rice at the store, they're likely whole grains. But some other foods are sneaky and aren't really whole grain — even if they say so on the front of the package. Scan the ingredients label and look for buzzwords like "whole wheat," "whole grain [name of grain]" or "whole [other grain]," to be sure the product is truly whole grain, according to the Whole Grains Council.

2. Swap Unsaturated Fats for Saturated Fats

There's no reason to fear fat — as long as you're eating the right kind. Olive oil and other unsaturated fats (think avocados and nuts) can help trim your waist. They help to control inflammation and stress hormones, both of which tell your body to hold on to fat in your midsection rather than burn it, says Palinski-Wade.

Results from a small 2014 study published in Diabetes suggest that eating more saturated fat slaps on belly fat, while filling your diet with unsaturated fats helps build muscle instead. Researchers asked study participants to eat about three muffins a day. Half of the participants ate muffins made with sunflower oil (unsaturated fat) while the other half ate muffins made with palm oil (saturated fat). Both groups gained about 3.5 pounds over seven weeks, but the saturated fat group packed on more fat, including liver and visceral fat, while the unsaturated fat group gained more lean tissue. That said, healthy fats are still high in calories, so be mindful of overeating.

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3. Swap Fatty Fish for Fatty Red Meat

Here's a reason to make tonight fish night: Eating more omega-3 fatty acids can help your body burn belly fat, according to Palinski-Wade. "These fats are anti-inflammatory and help reduce circulating stress hormones in the body," she says. Salmon and other fatty fish are full of omega-3 fatty acids called EPA and DHA, which may be linked to lower BMIs, body fat and waist circumferences in women, according to a 2014 study published in Nutrients.

Another score for salmon: One serving (3 ounces) of the wild-caught variety offers up to 447 IUs of vitamin D, which is more than 100 percent of your recommended daily intake. What's more, researchers found that higher vitamin D levels may result in lower BMIs and reduced belly fat in a 2015 study published in Nutrition & Metabolism. Eat salmon at least twice a week to reap the benefits.

4. Swap High-Protein for High-Carb Snacks

Here's a no-brainer: Ditch your go-to high-carb afternoon snack for almonds. According to a small 2015 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, trading a muffin for 1.5 ounces of almonds (approximately 30 nuts) benefitted overweight adults' health in more ways than one: After 12 weeks, almond-eating participants bettered their cholesterol scores and trimmed more fat off their waists and legs compared to the muffin eating group — even though their snacks contained the exact same number of calories and neither of the groups lost weight overall. Ditching high-carb, low-nutrient snacks for almonds, which are rich in unsaturated fats, protein and fiber, appears to help redistribute body fat in a healthier pattern. Best of all, they're the ultimate grab-and-go snack. Keep a stash in your desk or purse for those must-snack moments.

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