Belly fat is the bane of my life, and it doesn’t help that I can’t resist a good pizza, homemade bread, and some snacks here and there.
But, I realized a while ago that, while there is some margin for cheat meals, carb-heavy foods are probably best avoided if I’m ever going to get real ab definition.
I know that I’m not alone in this: 54% of adults in the US have abdominal obesity, and unfortunately, it’s a risk factor for a whole host of chronic diseases. Excess belly fat will increase your risk of heart attacks, heart disease, and high blood pressure. You’re also more at risk of having a stroke, developing type 2 diabetes, asthma, certain types of cancers, and dementia.
A while ago, I got more into the research behind belly fat and which foods are the worst offenders. There were some obvious ones, but you’ll probably be as surprised as I was at some of the foods that made the list.
So, which foods should we be avoiding if losing belly fat is our main goal? Let’s look at what the science says:
1. Refined grains have to go
I’m talking about white bread, white pasta, and white bread. Some of my favorite foods right there! Unfortunately, these foods have been stripped of most of their nutritional value, and research is clear; whole grains are going to help you lose weight compared to refined grains. In general, refined grains are lower in fiber, and most lack many essential vitamins and minerals.
Healthy alternatives: Try ancient grain bread alternatives, quinoa, brown rice, and buckwheat.
2. Sweetened drinks are down the drain
Soda, sports drinks, and even fruit juices can slow down your progress towards ab definition because they pack a double punch of being high in calories as well as being full of sugar — the worst kind, actually. Regular consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks is going to increase your chances of belly fat and weight gain. They’re also going to slow your metabolism, which is going to make it even harder to shift that spare tire.
If you’re hoping for a reprieve because you only drink diet soda, unfortunately, the numbers are in, and it doesn’t look good for you either. Just because the label says zero-calories, there seems to be a link between abdominal fat gain and no-calorie soft drinks. It may also make you more prone to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance, contributing to weight gain.
Even fruit juice is out. Even unsweetened, Apple juice has the same amount of sugar as cola, and grape juice has even more. And, because it’s liquid, it’s incredibly easy to consume a lot of sugar in a short space of time, and it doesn’t make you full.
Healthy alternatives: Sorry to say this, but green tea and water are your best options.
3. Alcohol, because we all know that moderation is key
Its common knowledge that excessive drinking is not good for your health, but did you know that it can affect your waistline too? Increased alcohol consumption levels are linked to mid-body weight gain, and the more you drink, the more likely you are to have excess belly fat.
The good news is that alcohol, such as red wine, has some health benefits. The key, it seems, is moderation. However, I avoid alcohol completely.
Consuming less than one drink a day leads to the least amount of abdominal fat. Comparatively, more than three drinks a day will make you 80% more likely to have excess belly fat.
Healthy alternatives: As long as you’re OK with moderation, an alcoholic drink every now and then can still be part of your diet, even if you’re focused on ab definition.
4. Fast food (in fact, fried food in general)
Trans fats and high calories are what you get when enjoying fast food options like French fries or burgers. Unfortunately, trans fats are the worst culprits in weight gain and higher levels of body fat (and they’re linked to a higher risk of heart disease).
Healthy alternatives: Your best bet will be to have a snack (or even a full meal) before you head out the door. If you’re full, you’re going to eat less when you get to the fast-food joint that your friends have chosen (and remember to skip the fries).
5. Sweet treats and packaged snacks
Cupcakes with frosting anyone? From now on, you’re probably going to have to say no. They’re unfortunately also packed with trans fats.
A study on monkeys compared two groups: eating trans fats and eating unsaturated fats. In six years, the first increased their body weight by 7.2%, while the other group only gained 1,8% on average. And, to add insult to injury, fat moved from other areas to the belly. And it’s in everything from biscuits to snack foods and frozen pizzas.
Then if there’s fructose in the mix, there’s, even more, to be concerned about. Cookies and cake, for example, are packed with calories (which we know), but they’re also full of fructose, and fructose is not your friend. It’s linked to higher levels of belly fat and may even increase your hunger (which will make you eat more and put on more weight).
Even healthier choices like muffins and frozen yogurt are still full of sugar and contribute to increased belly fat (and decreased insulin sensitivity), largely due to the light levels of fructose.
Healthy alternatives: None. Avoid this category of foods at all costs.
Other foods to avoid
Areas you want to keep an eye on:
- Processed meat, which is high in calories, nitrates, and saturated fats.
- Potato products, potato chips are potatoes are the foods linked to the highest levels of weight gain.
- Dairy, if you are lactose intolerant to reduce gas and bloating.
For me, I’ve found that the best way to reduce my intake of these foods is to make sure they’re never in the house. That way, if I get a craving, I have to make a special trip to the shops to stock up, by which stage I’m usually over the craving.
The most important thing to remember (if you’re prone to binge-snacking): eat a meal before you go shopping so that you don’t cave into temptation and end up eating your own bodyweight in the candy section.
From the research, I’ve been able to identify a few foods that need to be removed from my diet and to save those snacks for extra-special cheat days. In particular, I’m going to be reducing refined grains (it’s the pasta that breaks my heart!) and processed meats.
And, I’m definitely going to have to re-think my strategy around fast-food because convenience food is one of those things that is hard to get around in modern life.
You have to keep in mind that avoiding certain foods is going to make a big difference, but it’s not the whole story. You have to focus on overall fat loss because spot reduction (targeting a specific area for weight loss) is generally ineffective.
Your abs are going to start showing when you’re at about 12% body fat if you’re male and 17% body fat if you’re female. So, we’re back to where we’ve been before: creating a calorie deficit. You have to burn more calories than you’re consuming to lose weight.
Lowering your body fat takes time, and (a lot!) of self-discipline and that means training smart (think regular interval training and full-body workouts) and eating right (creating a calorie deficit of between 300 and 500 calories a day).
What are your best tips to get defined abs? I would love to hear below in the comments.