You see it, you feel it, you can even pinch it. It is that pesky belly fat we all complaint about – no matter gender, age or whether you are overweight or even thin. Why does this annoying fat sit right there in the middle of the body for everyone to see? Are there some foods that promote this type of body fat more than others? Equally, are there foods with the power to shrink that muffin top? And perhaps most important: is this fat the most dangerous to your health?

There are many factors that dictate where, and at what rate, you deposit fat. This includes everything from diet and stress to gender, physical activity, and even hormones.

Fat Trapped

Eat a bagel and wash it down with coffee, cream, and sugar; spend the next six-plus hours on your computer to make a pressing deadline while you skip your morning workout, and end up staying up too late. What will you get?  The perfect set up to increase abdominal fat. Here is how.

Insulin hormone spikes due to the rapid sugar release from the bagel. This flow of energy will be barely used right away, so it gets deposited as belly fat. Since you are under stress from your deadline, cortisol goes up. Visceral fat loves cortisol, which stimulates enzymes, such as lipoprotein lipase, that promotes fat storage. Everything gets worse when you cut back on your sleep, which throws off some metabolic hormones and will make you crave for more sugar and fat. In the end, you are trapped in a fat belly cycle that never ends.

The First to Come In and Out

The skin you can pinch between your fingers is your subcutaneous fat. This fat may not be 100 percent directly related to some diseases ¬like cardiovascular disease, diabetes type 2, metabolic syndrome among others that have an inflammatory component underneath. However, the bigger this kind of fat, the greater chances the visceral fat becomes—the fat that gets deep within the belly.

“We used to think that fat was a passive substance. The latest research shows that fat cells are very active secreting hormones and chemicals that under normal weight can be healthy, but when these fat cells get larger they are very dangerous,” says Erin Palinski, RD, CDE, author of the new book Belly Fat Diet for Dummies.

The good news is while the belly is the body’s preferred fat storage, it is also the first fat spot to be reduced when you change your diet and exercises (particularly aerobic exercise and/or resistance training circuit type). Belly fat is highly responsive to sympathetic activity, which means that when you exercise, the adrenalin rush acts as a flame to burnt it out. Women now understand why is so hard to get rid of fat in the thighs. This one does not response to the same conditions as belly fat. It stands to support maternity and lactation.

Although you can lose weight and even achieve your ideal weight through diet alone, if you really want to flatten your belly and keep it that way, you have to exercise too. “Part of what makes up your ‘belly’ is your abdominal muscles. If you begin to strengthen these muscles, they work like an internal girdle, pulling your stomach in, flattening it, and showing those perfect abs you desire.” says Palinski.

Food Fat Fighters

So if you don’t move, don’t expect to have a leaner midsection. Plus, if your diet relies on fast food and vending machine selections, you know what you will get: a larger belly. But the question remains: what are the best foods to shred your expanding belly?

According to Palinski, plenty of research points out that the following foods and ingredients are proven fat fighters—and also perfect for holiday festivities too.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like chia seeds, walnuts, and fish like salmon. Omega-3 rich foods been shown to help reduce abdominal fat storage and prevent the stress hormone cortisol from peaking.

Holiday option: walnuts and pumpkin seeds

Foods rich in fiber: whole grains (whole- wheat pasta, brown rice, and quinoa, for example) + beans + fruits like berries and apples).  A study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found dieters who ate five servings of whole grains every day for 12 weeks lost two times as much belly fat as people who instead ate refined carbohydrates. The key factor is fiber, in particular resistance starch, which helps resist digestion and is found in lentils and beans.

Holiday option: look for whole grain dinner rolls and even oatmeal cookies. On the fruit side, apples are the best option—they are rich in an antioxidant called quercetin, which can help block baby fat cells from expanding and fight inflammation.

Foods rich in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) like low fat milk and dairy and beef products has been shown to promote body fat losses. Animal studies show that mice consuming a diet high in CLA had significant reductions in body fat, and some human studies have shown a reduction in belly fat with increased CLA. Dairy products are also rich in the amino acid arginine, which has been shown to help promote fat loss and increase muscle mass.

Holiday option: Low fat milk (grass-fed cows produce milk with the highest CLA content), low fat yogurt, lamb, beef, and fortified eggs.

Foods rich in vitamin C, such as bell peppers. Studies have shown vitamin C prevents the hormone cortisol to remain elevated in a stressful situation. Cortisol will circulate in your body for shorter amounts of time, which helps to fight against belly fat storage.

Holiday option: sweet potato

Cinnamon.
This seasoning has been found in studies to make fat cells more responsive to insulin, which helps to better regulate blood sugar levels and prevent fat storage.

Holiday option: sprinkle some in your light cappuccino, latte, and hot chocolate

On the beverage department beyond the water:

Green tea: The main polyphenol, EGCG, in green tea as been shown to have thermogenic properties as well as help to increase fat oxidation in several studies. In fact, one study found when overweight individuals consumed the same amount of calories and performed the same amount of exercise, those who drank green tea lost more weight, especially from the abdomen.

Red wine: This may be the best choice for alcohol since it is rich in resveratrol. Resveratrol has  been shown to suppress levels of the hormone estrogen. High levels of estrogen in your body promote increased fat storage, so suppressing them may decrease body fat while helping to increase lean muscle mass.

Apple cider: The non-alcoholic variety can make a warm treat on those cold fall nights and at family gatherings. But some commercial brands add large amounts of sugar. Couple this with the additional calories from the rum (if you choose to add it) and your drink can parallel the calories in a slice of apple pie. To lighten it up, select apple cider with no added sugars and enjoy it warm and alcohol free. For hard apple ciders that are served chilled, slim it down by making an apple cider spritzer. Mix ½ cup apple cider, ½ cup club soda, and 1 tablespoon lemon juice for a refreshing seasonal cocktail.

Holiday options: All these are ideal holiday season beverages. Switch out your morning coffee for tea; enjoy a glass of wine with your dinner; toast with apple cider at family gatherings.

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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