And contrary to what a lot of people think, the belly is not a stubborn fat zone. "Unlike fat in other places, belly fat is earmarked to provide quick energy in the event you need to fight, flee, or endure a famine," Dr. Wheeler says. "When you engage in moderate activity (akin to fleeing or fighting) and cut calories (as in a famine), most of the fat you lose first will come from your belly."
It’s ready to come off; now give it a kick-start with these strategies.
Slipping into that waist-cinching pencil skirt (the one pushed to the back of your closet) requires exercising more and making smart food choices so that you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in—no surprise. What is surprising, though, is just how easy it is to make that happen. Try this: Every day, aim to get 30 minutes of exercise, spend no more than six hours sitting down, and keep your calorie count in the 1,500 to 2,000 range. "A woman who is moderately overweight (about 15 to 25 extra pounds) should lose 2 inches in the first two weeks—most will lose more," says Dr. Wheeler.
Also helpful: eating more of the following, which target belly flab in particular.
Getting your fill helps keep your stomach sleek, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Compared with people who only cut calories, those who also ate four to seven daily servings of whole grains (such as a slice of whole-wheat bread or half a cup of brown rice) lost significantly more belly fat.
That’s one more reason to be a (healthy) carb lover: "Not only does the fiber in whole grains help flush the digestive tract, leading to a flatter stomach due to less constipation, but it also helps you feel more satisfied," says Tammy Lakatos Shames, RD, the author of The Secret to Skinny.
Soluble fiber—the kind found in oatmeal and apples—appears to be an especially effective fat fighter. For every 10-gram increase in your daily consumption of the stuff, belly fat drops nearly 4% over five years, suggests research from Wake Forest University. "For the most benefit, get 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day," advises Dr. Wheeler.
Milk products do a belly good, helping it retain lean muscle and store less fat. Take it from the dieters in a University of Tennessee study who ate 6 ounces of fat-free yogurt with every meal and lost 81% more abdominal fat than those who cut calories alone. "Increasing calcium suppresses calcitriol, a hormone that promotes fat storage," explains lead author Michael Zemel, PhD. Quashing calcitriol also lowers your fat tissue’s production of cortisol, the hormone known to increase visceral fat.
What’s more, a recent Harvard University study makes the case for vitamin D and calcium as weight-loss aids. Researchers gave one group three daily glasses of orange juice containing calcium and vitamin D, while another group drank the same amount of unfortified OJ each day. After four weeks, the vitamin-D-and-calcium group lost nearly 10 times as much belly fat as those who drank regular juice. For that get-slim boost without all the calories in three glasses of OJ, supplement daily with 450 IU of vitamin D and 1,500 milligrams of calcium.
Fruits and Veggies
According to a University of Florida study, people who ate more of their overall diet from plant-based foods were slimmer. "Researchers developed an index—called the phytochemical index, or PI score—that ranks the number of calories consumed from plant-based foods compared with overall daily calorie intake on a scale of zero to 100," says Cynthia Sass, RD, a New York City–based dietitian and author of S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds, and Lose Inches. "People of normal weight had PI scores 10.3 points higher, on average, than overweight or obese people," she says. "And even though both groups consumed about the same number of daily calories, those with lower PI scores had larger waist circumferences." Researchers suggest including plant-based foods—fruits, veggies, nuts—every day, ideally at the start of each meal.
Include plant-based fat—like 2 tablespoons of almond butter or a quarter of an avocado—at each meal, advises Sass. Likewise, adding just under 2 teaspoons of PUFA-rich safflower oil to your diet each day—without even cutting calories—reduces abdominal fat, suggests an Ohio State University study. Linoleic acid—a polyunsaturated, omega-6 fatty acid found in safflower, sunflower, soybean, and corn oils—helps increase the fat-burning hormone adiponectin, says lead author Martha Belury, PhD. "Use safflower oil in salad dressings or baking—anything in which the oil doesn’t reach the smoking point (as in deep frying)," she suggests. "That breaks it down."
What to avoid
In addition to moving more and eating waist-friendly foods, aim to limit these fat magnets:
Folks who had three-plus drinks in a day—even infrequently—had more visceral fat than those who had the same amount monthly but spaced them out, according to University at Buffalo researchers. Tempted to have more than one drink? Choose light beer, wine spritzers, or diet mixers.
The type of fat in many baked goods and salty snacks may cause belly weight gain even if you’re not consuming excess calories. Skip anything with partially hydrogenated oils, says Dr. Wheeler. They can hide out in surprising places (like some bran cereals and low-fat ice creams).
Eating triggers insulin, and stress boosts cortisol. "When elevated, these two hormones work together to store extra calories you consume in the form of belly fat," Dr. Wheeler says. In a study at the University of California–San Francisco, stress eaters showed higher levels of insulin and cortisol—and gained more weight—than those who didn’t eat when anxious. Next time you sit down to eat, take five minutes to relax first. A good place to start: Put away your gadgets.
All the right moves
Over 40 and flirting with perimenopause? That may explain those five stubborn pounds around your middle, just under the skin (a.k.a. "subcutaneous" fat). "As ovaries slow their production of estrogen, the body compensates by making more fat cells," says Dr. Wheeler. Subcutaneous fat isn’t as bad for you as visceral, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept it. Fight back with exercise.
Ab exercises tone, but you need cardio to torch the fat that’s hiding them.Try alternating the intensity, suggests Jessica Matthews, exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. Whether you’re running or using a cardio machine, do one minute at an intensity level of 8 or 9 out of 10, followed by two minutes at 5 or 6; repeat this pattern.
Research suggests the bicycle maneuver tops the list of most effective core exercises. Lying down, hands behind your head, and knees at a 45-degree angle, extend one leg then the other in a slow pedaling motion, touching your right elbow to your left knee, and vice versa. Do two to three sets of 8 to 15 reps, every other day, and you’ll be well on your way to a thinner middle.