Trying to burn belly fat can be as frustrating as shopping for a new pair of jeans. The struggle is real, but it's also important: The deeper layer of belly fat, called visceral fat, can creep up on you slowly, gradually expanding your waistline until your health begins to decline.
Too much visceral fat, which is considered a 35-inch or higher waist circumference in women and 40 or more inches in men, has been linked to increased inflammation in the body as well as increased risk for several chronic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even certain cancers, according to recent studies and reviews published in PLoS One, Journal of Obesity, Cardiovascular Diabetology and Journal of the National Cancer Institute, respectively.
If you have been trying to flatten your belly with little success, you may be surprised why your efforts have failed. Here are three common but unexpected reasons you might be holding on to belly fat:
1. You Aren't Eating Enough (Good) Carbs
Yes, you read that right: If you've been avoiding carbohydrates, you may want to reconsider. "People who have trouble shedding belly fat might not be eating enough starch," says David Zinczenko, co-author of the best-selling Eat This, Not That! series.
But don't go downing just any starch — it's got to be resistant starch, a type of dietary fiber that, as the name suggests, is resistant to digestion. Found in plant foods such as potatoes, beans and even bananas, resistant starch is a quadruple threat when it comes to trimming your tummy: it leaves you feeling fuller longer; it provides fewer calories than easily-digestible starches; it may improve the body's sensitivity to insulin; and, finally, it feeds the healthy bacteria in your gut, which may help to reduce or prevent obesity, according to recent studies.
"Having an imbalance in gut bacteria may lead to you extracting and storing more calories from your food than a person with ideal levels of healthy gut bacteria," says Lori Shemek, PhD, author of How To Fight FATlammation.
The solution: The average American consumes about 4 grams of resistant starch each day, which is pretty easy to beat. You can nearly double your daily resistant starch intake just by eating half a cup of lentils or white beans, a medium-sized banana or two slices of pumpernickel bread.
2. You're Not Eating Enough (Good) Fat
It may sound counterintuitive, but you have to eat fat to fight fat — just be sure to keep it balanced.
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are both important for many parts of the body, including brain function as well as skin and hair growth. But eating too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3 fatty acids can result in chronic inflammation, which is associated with visceral obesity.
"A typical Western diet is rich in omega-6 fatty acids, but lacking in omega-3 fatty acids," Dr. Shemek says, which is not good for several reasons. Omega imbalance contributes to many health problems in addition to belly fat, such as heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer's disease.
The solution: Balance out your omega fatty acids by eating more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and fewer foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids. Some of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fatty fish (think halibut, salmon or trout), seeds and nuts (flaxseed, pumpkin seeds or walnuts) and dark leafy greens. As for omega-6 fatty acid foods, try to limit your intake of vegetable oils, salad dressings and processed snacks, such as chips and cookies.
3. You're in Pain and/or Stressed Out
It's not just about what you eat when it comes to belly fat. If you suffer from chronic pain or are under high levels of stress, you may find your waistline widening regardless of your diet.
"High levels of stress or chronic pain — which is another form of chronic stress — can raise cortisol levels," says David Katz, MD, MPH, founder of the GLiMMER Initiative and founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. In turn, he adds, this triggers insulin levels to rise, which leads to the development of more belly fat. The more stress you have, the more your waistline may expand.
The solution: The good news is that keeping your cortisol levels in check means you get to do things that feel good. Some of the best methods for coping with stress include yoga, meditation, getting enough sleep and eating well.
If you have chronic pain from a condition such as arthritis, you can help reduce joint pain by eating more plant-based foods. Spices such as turmeric have also been linked with a reduction in joint pain, which may also help to balance stress hormones.