While any excess body fat may be deemed unhealthy, fat that accumulates around the midsection is particularly problematic. Unlike fat in the hips or thighs, much of the stomach or abdominal fat is visceral, meaning it surrounds organs. Visceral fat releases chemicals that promote inflammation, impair insulin action and lead to abnormal cholesterol levels -- all which increase diabetes, heart disease and stroke risk. While exercise combined with an overall healthful diet pattern can promote weight loss and loss of stomach fat, there are some foods that may be particularly helpful as you try to lose this belly fat.
If you are trying to lose stomach fat, choosing whole grains may help. A study published in the September 2010 issue of "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" compared the diets and abdominal measurements of over 2800 adults. Researchers found that participants who incorporated whole grains regularly had less abdominal obesity compared to those who favored mostly refined grains. Of note, the quantity of whole grains to achieve this benefit was not excessive -- just 3 servings daily, with a serving equal to 1 slice of whole wheat bread or ½ cup of cooked oatmeal. While eating excessive breads and grains may stall weight loss efforts, this study suggests a benefit from swapping out refined grains -- such as cornflakes, rice and pasta -- for whole-grains, such as whole grain cereal, brown rice and quinoa.
Soluble Fiber-Rich Foods
Foods rich in soluble fiber may also help reduce stomach fat. A study published in the December 2013 issue of “Obesity” compared lifestyle patterns and abdominal computed tomography (CT) scans of over 1100 adults at study onset and after 5 years. By the end of the study, researchers found that each 10 gram increase in daily soluble fiber intake was linked to a 3.7 percent loss of visceral fat. Unlike insoluble fiber, the roughage which is beneficial in preventing constipation, soluble fiber forms a gel and helps trap some substances in the gut -- slowing the absorption of sugars and fats. Foods particularly rich in soluble fiber include oats, beans, chia and flax seeds, and many whole fruits and vegetables.
Heart healthy almonds and other nuts are another healthful ingredient in your diet. A study published in the April 2015 issue of “Journal of the American Heart Association” compared nearly identical diets on two groups of adults, except one diet included 1.5 ounces of almonds daily -- about 30 to 35 almonds -- and the other diet included a banana muffin, with a calorie amount similar to the almonds. After just 2 weeks, people in the almond group had lower levels of abdominal and thigh fat compared to the muffin group, even though the overall body weight did not differ between the 2 groups. This study found that replacing a less healthy snack with a handful of nuts promoted some loss of stomach fat.
Another way to lose abdominal fat may be to replace animal protein, such as meat, chicken and fish, with beans, nuts, seeds or tofu. A study published in the May 2011 issue of “Diabetic Medicine” compared the effects of a conventional diabetes diet and a vegetarian plan on two groups of people with diabetes. The study participants who followed the vegetarian diet had a greater reduction in visceral fat compared to those consuming the conventional diet. To mimic this study diet, incorporate vegetable proteins such as whole soy milk, tofu, beans, nuts and seeds into a diet that already includes whole grains, fruit and vegetables.
Mediterranean Diet Pattern
While including certain foods may help reduce weight and stomach fat, the overall diet pattern also appears to make a difference. A study published in the March 2011 issue of "Journal of the American College of Cardiology" showed that people who closely follow a Mediterranean-style diet had lower waist circumference measurements, thus lower stomach fat compared to those who did not follow this diet. The Mediterranean diet revolves around plant foods -- whole grains, beans, fruit, vegetables and nuts along with regular consumption of fish and olive oil. This diet is one of the most well-researched meal patterns, and researchers conclude that the synergy of the whole diet, rather than just the the individual foods, is responsible for most of this diet’s benefits.
While attempting long-term weight loss can be challenging and even discouraging, the good news is that there are many tasty and nutritious foods that can be part of a successful weight loss plan. If you are struggling to lose weight despite your efforts, talk to your doctor and ask for a referral to a dietitian. Also, if you have gained weight suddenly and without explanation, see your doctor.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH, RD
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Whole- and Refined-Grain Intakes Are Differentially Associated With Abdominal Visceral and Subcutaneous Adiposity in Healthy Adults: The Framingham Heart Study
- Obesity: Lifestyle Factors and 5-Year Abdominal Fat Accumulation in a Minority Cohort: The IRAS Family Study
- Journal of the American Heart Association: Effects of Daily Almond Consumption on Cardiometabolic Risk and Abdominal Adiposity in Healthy Adults With Elevated LDL‐Cholesterol: A Randomized Controlled Trial
- Diabetic Medicine: Vegetarian Diet Improves Insulin Resistance and Oxidative Stress Markers More Than Conventional Diet in Subjects With Type 2 Diabetes
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: The Effect of Mediterranean Diet on Metabolic Syndrome and its Components