No excess weight is healthy, but carrying a few extra pounds in your midsection is especially harmful. People who store weight in their belly tend to accumulate visceral fat -- deep abdominal fat that surrounds the organs -- as well as the subcutaneous fat that you can pinch. Visceral fat releases chemicals that promote chronic inflammation, upping your risk of cardiovascular disease. Technically, any food in excess can make you pack on pounds and belly fat, but a few types of food are especially bad.
Avoid Potatoes -- in Any Form
Whether you eat them fried, mashed, scalloped, baked or as chips, potatoes don't do your waistline any favors. In fact, a 2011 study in the New England Journal of Medicine pointed to potatoes as one of the worst foods for weight gain. The researchers analyzed the diets of 120,877 nonobese men and women in the United States, looking for trends in weight gain and disease risk over of a period of 20 years. They found that potato chips and potatoes were both in the top five foods linked to weight gain.
These findings make sense -- potato chips and french fries are packed with fat and calories, and even "healthy" potato dishes can have a high calorie intake that makes you pack on the pounds. For example, a large baked potato topped with a tablespoon of butter has 390 calories, while the same baked potato topped with an ounce of cheddar cheese has 404 calories. That's a significant amount of the typical daily calorie budget, especially if you're serving a baked potato as a side dish.
Beware of Processed and Red Meats
Researchers in the 2011 New England Journal of Medicine study also found a connection between processed meats, red meat and weight gain. Many processed meats are high in fat and, as a result, packed with calories. For instance, 1/4 pound of Italian sausage has 286 calories -- not counting any calories in the bun, toppings or side dishes. A single fast-food cheeseburger supplies 343 calories -- and larger burgers can easily top 500 calories per sandwich and approach the 1,000-calorie mark -- while each slice of bacon has 56 calories. When you eat red meat, select lean cuts -- for example, 97-percent lean ground chuck or lean flank steak -- and keep your portions small, at 3 ounces, to limit weight gain.
Harmful Trans Fats Trigger Weight Gain
While you need some fat to provide energy and help with vitamin absorption, certain fats spell disaster when you're trying to shrink your waistline. Trans fats, which are created when unsaturated fats undergo a chemical process called hydrogenation, actually trigger a redistribution of fat to promote abdominal obesity. They're also the worst fat for your heart, and any amount of trans fat in your diet ups your risk of heart disease.
Look out for trans fats in processed foods, like margarine, crackers, pastries and packaged baked goods. You'll also find it in more obvious junk foods, like store-bought frosting. Check the label for "partially hydrogenated" fats or "shortening" -- these code words signal that your food contains at least some trans fats, even if the amount is too small to be indicated on the nutrition information panel.
Added Sugar and Alcohol Expand Your Waist
It's not just food that can make you pack on excess belly fat -- drinks can make you gain weight too. Sugary drinks -- a group that includes soft drinks, colas and juice cocktails -- often come loaded in calories but offer little nutritional value. And some Americans consume large amounts of sugary drinks -- roughly 25 percent of people in America get at least 200 calories from them each day.
Drinking alcohol can also make you gain belly weight. Alcohol is a toxin, and your liver works hard after you imbibe to metabolize and remove it from your body. That's bad news if you're trying to maintain your weight, since you want your liver working to metabolize fat.
Avoid sugary drinks in favor of flavored flat or sparkling water -- add a squeeze of lime juice, a hint of orange zest or some muddled basil for virtually calorie-free flavor. Drink alcohol in moderation -- that means a maximum of one drink daily for women or two drinks daily for men -- and avoid sugary cocktails, like daiquiris and margaritas.