When it comes to belly fat, there's not one specific thing that packs the pounds around your midsection. Fat accumulates at your waistline thanks to a combination of factors, including genetics, stress and sleep habits, but what you eat also plays a major role.
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When we talk about belly fat, we mean the hard, visceral fat that lies deep in your abdomen and surrounds your organs. This type of fat is more dangerous than the soft, subcutaneous fat that sits just under your skin.
Indeed, too much visceral fat — marked by a waist circumference of 40 inches or more for men and 35 inches or more for women — has been linked to an increased risk for such conditions as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, per Harvard Health Publishing.
The good news is that visceral fat is the first to go when you clean up your diet and start to lose weight. Beyond cutting calories, though, the quality of the food you're eating seems to play a key part in how much visceral fat your body tucks away.
Here's what the research says about which foods may lead to belly fat, and which might just help to blast it away.
Foods Linked to Belly Fat
1. Processed Meat
Bacon, sausage and deli meats have rarely been associated with a healthy diet. When it comes to reducing visceral fat and your waistline, though, it may be even more important to cut down on these foods.
The good news is that unprocessed meats, including lean cuts of poultry, pork and beef, do not show the same association. So while you don't have to give up meat altogether to reduce belly fat, it would be smart to keep meals with bacon, sausage and deli meats to an occasional treat.
2. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
Soft drinks and energy drinks are usually packed full of empty calories with little nutritional value. What's more, research published February 2014 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that visceral fat tends to increase along with increased soda consumption, so reducing your intake of these beverages is a no-brainer.
Swapping some of these beverages with fruit-infused seltzer, unsweetened coffee or tea or simply plain water will likely help to reduce belly fat.
There may be a special case for making coffee your sub of choice: A study published May 2020 in The Journal of Nutrition found that people who drink two or three cups of java daily (caffeinated or decaf) have lower total body and abdominal fat than those who drink less. (It's worth noting that the link was stronger in women than in men.)
According to the Mayo Clinic, drinking excess alcohol can lead to a "beer belly," but the alcohol itself isn't solely to blame. Imbibing too much alcohol of any variety adds extra calories, and those extra calories can contribute to a wider girth.
If you're concerned with the size of your waist, make sure to consume alcohol in moderation, which means up to one drink per day for women and two daily drinks for men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
4. Fried and Fast Foods
Fast food is a convenient option when you're on-the-go, but too much may wreck havoc on your middle. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, people who eat more fast food also weigh more, have higher triglycerides and have a larger waist circumference than those who eat less.
Fast food is usually high in saturated fat and salt and low in overall nutrients, like vitamins, minerals and fiber. And while you don't have to swear off fries for life, try to limit fast food to those times when you're in a pinch for a meal or have a specific craving in order to help minimize belly fat.
What to Eat to Lose Belly Fat
Sure, there are foods to avoid for a slimmer middle — but what about foods that burn belly fat? There's actually no such thing (so don't fall for those "belly fat burner" gimmicks) — but eating foods rich in fiber is linked to less belly fat.
Indeed, a study published April 2015 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who reported consuming more fiber were significantly less likely to have dangerous levels of visceral fat.
Good sources of fiber include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole-grain or whole-wheat pasta
- Whole-grain bread
There are a lot of other benefits to eating a high-fiber diet, per the Mayo Clinic, including lower cholesterol levels, better blood sugar control, healthy weight maintenance and better bowel health. Eating more fiber has even been linked to living longer.
Unfortunately, only about 5 percent of Americans are getting the recommended amount of the nutrient, according to a paper in the January-February 2017 issue of the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, which is 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams for men, per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The Mayo Clinic offers the following tips for increasing your fiber intake:
- Eat a high-fiber breakfast cereal.
- Switch grain products for whole grains and aim for at least 2 grams of fiber per serving.
- Bulk up baked goods by substituting white flour for a whole-grain option.
- Increase fruit and vegetables to meet at least five servings or more per day.
- Include legumes (think: beans, peas, lentils) whenever possible.
- When snacking, choose fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and whole-grain options.
- Mayo Clinic: "Belly fat in women: Taking — and keeping — it off"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal obesity and your health"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "MRI-determined total volumes of visceral and subcutaneous abdominal and trunk adipose tissue are differentially and sex-dependently associated with patterns of estimated usual nutrient intake in a northern German population"
- Mayo Clinic: "Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet"
- PLOS One: "Food Composition of the Diet in Relation to Changes in Waist Circumference Adjusted for Body Mass Index"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Dietary determinants of hepatic steatosis and visceral adiposity in overweight and obese youth at risk of type 2 diabetes"
- Mayo Clinic: "Belly fat in men: Why weight loss matters"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Food and Diet Beyond Willpower: Diet Quality and Quantity Matter"
- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine: "Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines: Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Facts About Moderate Drinking"
- The Journal of Nutrition: "Regular Coffee Consumption Is Associated with Lower Regional Adiposity Measured by DXA among US Women"