You may be trying to trim your tummy so you can look your best in a swimsuit. But there are far more important reasons to banish that belly.
"Apples," who carry their extra weight in their abdominal area (as opposed to "pears," who have more bulk in their hips and lower body), are more prone to heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the risk of serious health problems increases with a waist measurement of over 40 inches in men and over 35 inches in women.
Apples vs. Pears
Often, apples are men or postmenopausal women, says Cathy Nonas, RD, director of obesity and diabetes programs at North General Hospital in New York. Men are genetically predisposed to that shape, and the loss of estrogen after menopause can cause a woman's weight to shift from her lower body to her abdomen.
"Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do about either your genetic predisposition, or the redistribution of weight," says Nonas, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "But don't compound the situation by gaining weight in general."
While too many fat-laden meals and too little physical activity can also lead to excess poundage and a widening waistline, Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, suggests still another reason: stress (although he acknowledges that this is not yet a generally agreed-upon theory in the medical community).
According to Talbott, author of The Cortisol Connection, when we're under stress, our bodies release stress-fighting hormones such as cortisol, adrenalin, and insulin. While adrenalin generally dissipates once the stress-inducing situation is over, cortisol levels remain high, which causes insulin levels to increase as well, Talbott says. The combination of high cortisol and high insulin levels is a recipe for weight gain -- usually around the abdomen, according to Talbott.
Less Food, More Activity
Unfortunately, there is no "magic pill" when it comes to whittling your belly, experts say. And there's no such thing as spot reducing. "You can work out the abdominal muscles, but if you don't lose weight, there will still be a layer of fat over the muscle," says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, lead nutrition instructor for the Art Institute of New York City, which prepares students for careers in the culinary profession
Nonas agrees: "When you lose weight overall, you'll lose the belly fat as well."
That means following a sensible eating regimen. A good place to start is by eliminating junk food, which is high in sugars and fats.
And think about giving up non-diet soda, which is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. In a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers reported that the body digests, absorbs, and metabolizes fructose differently from glucose (sugar), suggesting that fructose may encourage weight gain. The researchers also found that high-fructose corn syrup alters the body's ability to sense that it is full.
For quick gratification while you're losing weight, you can temporarily combat some of that pooch with foods that act as diuretics -- cabbage, cucumbers, and watermelon, for example. Eating more lean protein and reducing your intake of simple carbs (such as white rice, pasta, and bread) may also take care of some water weight, says Amidor.
But she cautions against drinking too many caffeinated beverages, which also have a diuretic effect: "You'll get rid of fluids but you'll also be losing iron and calcium."
Exercising is an important part of losing weight, but you don't have to become a gym rat, says fitness expert Mare Petras, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Swimsuit Shoppers. In fact, she urges that you think "physical activity" rather than "exercise."
"Look for activities which burn excess fat and increase muscle mass," says Petras. That could mean walking your dog, riding your bike, putting on your favorite CD and dancing around the house -- or just doing chair squats whenever you think about it. "Try 10 every two hours and before you know it, you've logged in 50 squats," Petras says.
"The key to banishing your belly is consistent, moderate aerobic activity," says Petras. "It doesn't have to be all-or-nothing ... just do something."
Cardiovascular (aerobic) activity will burn more calories per session than weight training, says Comana. But he adds that the body expends extra calories after a weight training session, so it's good to combine both types of activity.
Along with aerobic and strength-training activities, ab-specific exercises can help tone your abdominal muscles. Strong abs help support your back and make everyday activities easier. And once you lose some of the fat layer covering your abs, your tummy-tightening efforts will really show.
In a recent American Council on Exercise study, researchers looked at 13 of the most common abdominal exercises and ranked them best to worst. Among the most effective were the "bicycle" maneuver, the captain's chair (a piece of gym equipment in which you lift your bent legs toward your upper body), crunches done on an exercise ball, crunches done with the legs held vertically, and reverse crunches (lying in crunch position, raise your bent legs toward your shoulders).
For best results, the study's lead researcher, Peter Francis, PhD, recommends doing several of these exercises for five minutes a day.
Finally, it can't hurt to manage your stress.
"Identify what's stressing you out, and then find out what works for you in relieving that stress," Talbott says. Yoga works for some, meditation for others. Your stress reliever may be golf, swimming, or simply a long soak in the tub.
Losing your tummy takes a multi-pronged approach that includes diet, exercise, and stress management, Talbott says.
"Women tend to want to diet, and men tend to want to exercise," Talbott says. "But you need all three pieces to make this work."