The bad news is there's no official list of "foods to avoid for a flat stomach." But the good news is that there are some groups of foods that do promote the storage of belly fat, and if you avoid, or at least limit, these foods, it can reduce weight and get you closer to achieving that flat belly.
The other piece of good news is that most of the foods to avoid to lose belly fat probably won't surprise you. They're things like ice cream, chocolate, white bread and pasta, which are full of sugar and refined carbohydrates. Eating too many of these types of carbohydrates affects the way your body uses insulin and can disrupt other hormones, leading to weight gain, specifically in the belly.
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The Problem With Belly Fat
Many people chase after a flat tummy simply for aesthetic reasons, but trimming your waistline has benefits that extend far beyond what you look like. There are two major body shapes: pear and apple. If you're pear-shaped, that means you tend to gain weight in your lower body, on your thighs and hips. If you're apple-shaped, your weight tends to accumulate in your stomach.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, where you gain weight is partly influenced by your genetics, but it's also influenced by your hormones and your diet.
If you tend to gain weight in your belly, it's a good idea to look at ways to start trimming down. Carrying excess belly fat increases your risk of health problems, like high blood pressure, diabetes, insulin resistance and increased cholesterol levels. Belly fat is also biologically active, so it sends out signals that tell your body to pump out substances called cytokines that contribute to chronic, systemic inflammation.
But don't worry, there's a lot you can do about it, and some of the things you can do are fairly easy. In addition to making sure you're exercising regularly (at least 30 minutes per day), it also helps to change your diet. If you want to trim your belly down, avoid foods that are high in certain sugars, refined carbohydrates and trans fats.
Read more: Diets for Visceral Fat
Too Much Fructose
Although it's not technically a food itself, fructose tops the list of foods to avoid to lose belly fat. While eating a whole piece of fruit here and there isn't a big deal, fructose becomes a major problem when you consume it in excess and in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, which is a highly processed form of sugar. But fructose is different from regular sugar in the form of sucrose or glucose in the way that it triggers hormones and proteins in your body.
When you consume fructose, it travels right to your liver, instead of entering the bloodstream and triggering the cells in your pancreas to release insulin. When it gets to your liver, it also triggers the release of cortisol, which increases the likelihood that you'll store fat in your belly.
Unlike other sugars, fructose doesn't increase the release of leptin or decrease the release of ghrelin, two hormones that help balance your hunger, prompting you to eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full. Together, all of these factors can contribute to weight gain, especially in the belly.
A study that was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in October 2015 looked at the effect of fructose-sweetened drinks on belly fat and found that consumption of these beverages not only leads to obesity, but it also increases the risk of developing belly fat, specifically. On the other hand, limiting fructose, especially high-fructose corn syrup, can help you reduce weight.
Ten fructose-filled foods to avoid for a flat tummy include:
- Frozen foods
- Canned fruit
- Breakfast cereal
- Condiments and dressings
- Coffee creamer
- Ice cream
- Sports drinks
Read more: Healthy and Unhealthy Foods High in Fructose
The Refined Carbohydrates Class
Fructose isn't the only type of carbohydrate you should avoid. Refined carbohydrates are a class of carbohydrates that have been processed to remove fiber and many of their beneficial nutrients. These types of carbohydrates move through your digestive system quickly, triggering a rapid and significant rise in both glucose and insulin levels. After the initial rise of glucose and insulin comes a crash, which leaves you feeling hungry, tired and irritable.
That's not the only problem with refined carbohydrates, though. According to a study published in Missouri Medicine in October 2016, a diet that's high in refined carbohydrates increases the risk of metabolic syndrome, which is characterized by extra belly fat, among other things. Replacing refined carbohydrates with complex carbohydrates and high-quality proteins can help reduce belly fat and slim your waistline.
Ten refined carbohydrate-rich foods to avoid for a flat stomach include:
- White bread
- White pasta
- White rice
- Potato chips
- Instant oatmeal
- French fries
- Cakes, cookies and desserts
- Candy and chocolate
- Ice cream
Dangerous Trans Fats
It's difficult to talk about losing belly fat without a discussion of trans fats, but there's some good news here. After learning about the dangers of trans fat, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made the decision to phase all partially hydrogenated oils out of manufactured and processed foods by January 2021. Because of this, trans fats won't be a long-term issue, but they're worth a quick mention.
An older study that was published in Nature Reviews Endocrinology in April 2009 at the height of the trans fat controversy pointed out that consuming trans fats not only increases belly fat, but also promotes chronic inflammation and increases the risk of developing insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Another study, published in Obesity in September 2012 stated that, while a lot of focus was on saturated fats, trans fats actually increased visceral fat, or the dangerous belly fat, to a more significant degree.
To make sure you're avoiding trans fats, exclude foods that are made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. The 10 biggest sources seem to be:
- Frozen breakfast sandwiches
- Microwave popcorn
- Frozen pizza
- Fried foods
- Processed crackers
- Commercially prepared cakes, cookies and pies
- Obesity: "Metabolic Implications of Dietary Trans‐fatty Acids"
- Nature Reviews Endocrinology: "Trans Fatty Acids: Effects on Metabolic Syndrome, Heart Disease and Diabetes"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It"
- Nutrients: "Fructose Consumption in the Development of Obesity and the Effects of Different Protocols of Physical Exercise on the Hepatic Metabolism"
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: "Fructose and Cardiometabolic Health: What the Evidence from Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tells Us"
- Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases: "Fructose-Induced Inflammation and Increased Cortisol: A New Mechanism for How Sugar Induces Visceral Adiposity"
- Missouri Medicine: "Death by Carbs: Added Sugars and Refined Carbohydrates Cause Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease in Asian Indians"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Avoid These 10 Foods Full of Trans Fats"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fat)"
- American Heart Association: "Carbohydrates"