By Jane Feinmann
Belly fat isn't just ugly. It's also unhealthy.
Underneath the love handles, the muffin belly and the inches you can pinch, lies the nasty stuff: the fat deep inside the torso that wraps itself around the heart and liver and is known to raise the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
This band of unattractive, toxic lard has been widely regarded as the most difficult to shift - until now.
Here's five ways to get a flat belly without resorting to a whalebone corset.
1. Eat foods rich in mono-unsaturated fats (MUFAs)
For nearly two decades, scientists have been telling us that a MUFA-rich diet has a highly protective effect against heart disease and diabetes.
And evidence has emerged more recently that it also significantly reduces the risk of breast and lung cancer.
At first, it was thought that MUFA-rich olive oil was the key to a healthy diet.
It's now known that other MUFA-rich foods, including vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, avocados and dark chocolate, are equally healthy.
Only recently, however, have scientists made the connection that healthy can also be attractive. MUFAs exert their healthy effect, it seems, by shifting toxic belly fat - thereby freeing up the internal organs, reducing inflammation and improving blood-flow.
A MUFA-rich diet also flattens the belly - as a series of studies published in the last year or so have shown.
The American dietitian and sports nutritionist Cynthia Sass realised the significance of this research and teamed up with Liz Vaccariello, editor of America's biggest selling health magazine, Prevention, to write the best-selling Flat Belly Diet: How to Get the Flat Stomach You've Always Wanted (Rodale, £12.99).
The resulting diet book promises a flat stomach with no sit-ups required, and serves up an abundance of scrumptious MUFA-rich menus that should also extend your life and improve your well-being.
Does it work? Yes, according to research just completed by the Prevention Research Centre at Yale University School of Medicine.
A group of nine women who followed the four-week Flat Belly Diet lost 33 per cent of their visceral belly fat (as shown by MRI scan) as well as 8.4 pounds in weight and 1.6 inches off their waistline over four weeks.
2. Avoid bloating
Much of your paunchy belly is nothing but trapped wind - and a good deal of the rest is solid food and liquid that's loitering in your abdomen.
That's why the Flat Belly Diet starts with a four day "anti-bloat jump-start" based on good nutritional guidelines - "It's not a dangerous detox plan. It's wholesome food prepared in simple, delicious ways," says Sass.
The dietitian found that she could beat the bloat with a few small changes such as "drinking lots of water, trading my crisp, fresh apple for a few, less bulky dried figs and swapping peanuts for milder pumpkin or sunflower seeds".
Avoiding the bloat is all about treating your gut with respect.
Here's how to do it:
- Eat slowly to avoid swallowing air
- Cut out fizzy drinks; where do you think the bubbles go?
- Be aware of the impact of particular foods: pulses, dried fruits, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, sprouts, peppers and citrus fruits are more likely to create wind in your gut
- Reduce your salt intake; this makes you retain more fluid, contributing to a sluggish feeling, a puffy appearance and extra weight
- Avoid raw vegetables: a 60g serving of cooked carrots delivers the same nutrition as 115g raw but takes up less room.
If you eat only cooked vegetables, tinned fruits in natural juices and unsweetened dry fruit, you'll meet your nutrient needs without expanding your stomach with extra volume
- Don't chew gum. It makes you swallow air and that gets trapped in your stomach, causing bloating and belly expansion
- Avoid fried food, which you can only digest slowly, causing you to feel bloated
- Eat regularly, and avoid erratic eating habits. Long gaps between meals, smoking and drinking alcohol or coffee on an empty stomach will make your bloating worse.
3. Cut out bread
People who avoid bread, even temporarily, tend to be dismissed as victims of media hype who are at risk of missing out on a convenient source of important nutrients.
There's little independent research to assess the impact of bread on health, even though modern commercial baking methods are clearly problematic, according to the organic baker Andrew Whitley, founder of the Village Bakery and the author of the book Bread Matters.
He says that many of the "anti-staling" enzymes that are added to dough to keep bread soft after baking and to extend shelf-life are not normally consumed as food.
"No wonder many people have a gut feeling that modern bread makes them bloated," he says.
4. Reduce stress
When you're chronically stressed, your mind and body can conspire to load the lard around your waist, according to Vaccariello.
The stress hormone cortisol stimulates the appetite and induces cravings for sugar and fat, the most easily burned fuels.
But, Vaccariello says, the problem is that "cortisol also signals the body to store fat on the belly. It's nature's way of ensuring that resources are readily and easily available for fuel when the body needs them for life-preserving exertion."
5. Get core stability
A saggy belly is a side effect of poorly functioning core muscles.
So don't bother with crunches - they don't target abdominal muscles, says Vaccariello.
Instead, combine aerobic exercise - half hour of fast walking every day, for instance - with a "belly-centric" workout that targets the body's natural corset, the muscles that spread around the waist and, together with the pelvic floor and diaphragm, make up your inner core.
A study showed that a combination of the MUFA diet and 10 minutes of core stability exercise every day gets rid of double the quantity of visceral fat as diet alone.
The "Hover" exercise, also known as the "Plank", is one of the best routines to strengthen core muscles:
- Lie face down, with your upper body propped on your forearms and your elbows directly beneath the shoulders.
- Contract the torso muscles, lifting belly and legs off the floor so that the body forms a straight line from head to heels. Keep abdominal muscles tight so your belly doesn't droop.
- Hold the position for 15 seconds. Increase the hold by 15 seconds each week so that by week four you're holding for one minute.
Doing just one of these "Hover" exercises every day will make a difference.