By Erinn Bucklan
Most of us want a flat stomach (I know I do), but when it comes to our collective dream of a flatter tummy, there’s good news and bad news. First the good: It's possible to get a flatter stomach without doing endless sit-ups or crunches. In fact, all of the tips I'm going to discuss are non-workout-related, meaning it's possible to flatten your belly by making changes to your lifestyle, not necessarily to your workout routine (though hitting the gym once in a while is never a bad idea). Now for the bad news: Carrying excess pounds in your midsection isn't good for your health, and I'm not even talking about the extra weight.
"Storing fat in the belly (i.e., being apple-shaped) [is] associated with a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke," says Tammy Lakatos Shames, RD, certified personal trainer and one half of The Nutrition Twins. "Excess fat around the hips and thighs (i.e., being pear-shaped) isn’t as dangerous."
Extra poundage around the tummy -- known as visceral fat -- is nestled deep around vital abdominal organs and actively thrives on the hormones and internal chemicals affecting our health. But it’s not all bad: Lose the habits that thicken your belly and you’ll trim your tummy. So, how do you do that? Try to:
1. Lower Your Stress
Life’s little stresses actually increase the brain’s production of cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone that was useful when we, like, lived in caves. Today, cortisol just causes extra fat storage in the abdomen, rather than helping you outrun a saber-toothed tiger.
Belly Buster: Activities like yoga or deep breathing can help reduce stress and cut anxiety. "They activate the body’s parasympathethic nervous system to help you automatically relax," says Lyssie Lakatos, the other half of The Nutrition Twins, who, like her sister, is also a registered dietitian and personal trainer.
2. Get More Sleep
Cortisol kicks into high gear when you aren’t getting enough shut-eye. "Cortisol -- the same hormone that increases during stress -- is affected when you’re sleep-deprived, and that can increase belly fat," says Shames. "Plus, when you’re tired and craving energy, you often turn to food because cortisol also makes you feel hungrier."
Belly Buster: Shoot for at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night to arm yourself against the battle of the belly bulge.
3. Eat Foods That Contain Probiotics
Consuming foods that contain probiotics (aka live "good" bacteria) can help reduce belly bloat caused by an overabundance of "bad" flora in your gut. "Eating dairy with probiotics will help to ease digestive woes that can cause bloating," says Lakatos.
Belly Buster: Add foods that are good sources of probiotics to your daily intake. Kefir and yogurt are great, as long as the label says they contain live and active cultures.
4. Skip Belly-Bloating Beverages
Don't want a beer belly? Avoid alcohol. "The occasional social drink is fine, but a little goes a long way," says Shames. "Large amounts of alcoholic beverages -- especially in the evening -- are proven to have a bloating effect." Other beverages that aren’t helping your cause: coffee (it can irritate your GI track) and soda. "Many dieters believe that drinking zero-calorie soda won’t have negative impact on their physique, but the truth is that the carbonation in fizzy drinks -- even sparkling water -- can cause belly bloating when the gas from the carbonation settles in the stomach."
Belly Buster: Stick with regular ol' water for best results.
5. Avoid Salt And Sneaky High-Sodium Foods
Salt causes gastrointestinal discomfort and excessive bloating to the midsection. "Sodium... attracts and retains water, giving you a puffy appearance," says Lakatos.
Belly Buster: Stay away from prepackaged meats and processed foods with large amounts of seasoning. These are subtle sources of high sodium that can lead to a tubby tummy.
Achieving a flatter stomach is going to take some work, but the health benefits are totally worth it. Plus, showing off in a new bathing suit won't be so bad either.