You spend hours diligently working your abs in core training but still find your middle area clings on to fat. Sound familiar? A big mistake made by many people looking to achieve a toned midriff is to disregard what goes into their body. Certain foods have colossal ab-defining properties; others serve only to exacerbate bloating and belly fat.
Even some of the healthiest sounding foods can be problematic to your middle. Take vegetables, for example. Some like kale, sprouts and broccoli can be tough for the body to digest in their raw state. Surprisingly, they are better served lightly cooked. "Gentle steaming breaks down the fibre structure, making them easier to digest," says nutritionist Ian Marber . "Even if the raw vegetables have a high water content, it can result in more bloating for some people."
But what other dietary changes should you make to meals to ensure your abs are refined this summer? Here we ask the experts about the foods that will help and harm your stomach area...
Foods for fine abs
Almonds and pistachios
In 2007, researchers at Purdue University also reported that – despite the fact they are relatively high in calories – almonds themselves do not contribute to belly fat. And after six months, a group of adults who added pistachios to their diets and ate around one fifth of their total calories from the nut saw their waists slim by almost an inch. They also had less harmful inflammation. Nuts are packed with monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) that increase the release of hormones that help regulate glucose metabolism and increase the release of insulin, both of which help lower blood sugar and consequently reduce fat settling around your middle. “Eat sparingly though, as they are high in calories,” says Louise Sutton, dietician at Leeds Metropolitan University.
People who get their calcium from plain yoghurt rather than from other sources may lose more weight around their middle, according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity. Yoghurt-eaters lost 22 per cent more weight, 61 per cent more body fat and 81 per cent more stomach fat during a 12-week test at the University of Tennessee. In total, their abdominal area reduced by an inch, something researchers put down in part to the calcium in yoghurt. “Small changes in the calcium levels of fat cells alter signals within the cell that control the production and breakdown of fat,” they said. “Also, the probiotic bacteria in most yoghurts help keep your digestive system healthy, which means less abdominal bloating,” Sutton adds.
Celery is a food to munch on for your abs. “It acts as a gentle, natural diuretic, helping to banish water retention and abdominal bloating,” says Ian Marber. “Plus, it's full of fibre, which fills you up.” It also has a slight negative calorie count - you use more energy chewing and digesting celery than it actually contains, Marber adds.
The food of the moment consists of 92 per cent water and is a good source of potassium; the balance between sodium and potassium is important when it comes to avoiding stomach bloating. As the two main minerals that control the amount of water in your body, when your sodium level is too high, your tissues hold on to fluid. “Because it’s high in water and low in calories it’s a great summer snack,” Sutton says. There are studies to show watermelon helps reduce post workout soreness - perfect for after your core training session at the gym.
Eating a single kiwi fruit after a heavy meal could avoid stomach bloat according to researchers from Massey University in New Zealand. The fruit has been found to contain a unique compound which helps to digest proteins found in red meat, dairy and fish. ‘The observed enhancement of gastric protein digestion after eating kiwi fruit may increase the rate at which protein is absorbed in the small intestine, ultimately affecting the overall protein utilisation in the human body,’ said lead author Dr Lovedeep Kaur.
A daily glass of pomegranate juice might help to lower the amount of fats in the blood known as nonesterified fatty acid or NEFA. Earlier studies linked high NEFA levels to a greater storage of fat around the abdomen as well as an increased risk of heart disease and Type II diabetes. Eating the whole fruit is also beneficial as it could curb hunger pangs and sugar cravings. Last year, Dr Emad Al-Dujaili, a nutritionist at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh showed how a group of volunteers who ate a daily pomegranate supplement containing the skin, pith and seeds of the fruit ate 22 per cent less calories than a control group and also rated their food as being more tasty. One theory is that pomegranates contain powerful polyphenols which act as an appetite suppressant. Al-Dujaili says it could potentially help in “reducing risk factors for overweight”.
And Some to Avoid...
Among the worst culprits when it comes to bloating. High-sodium foods cause the body to retain water, which leads to a post-meal bloat that’s the result of fluid buildup. “It’s not only uncomfortable but makes your heart work harder,” says Sutton. “And salt can show up in some unlikely sources, including sweet processed foods, so read your food labels carefully; switch to flavouring your foods with herbs when you can.”
It's no secret that too much sugar is bad for us . Guidelines suggest we get no more than 50g a day (70g for men) but because our diets are often mostly made up of refined carbohydrates, we end up with a pretty constant flow of sugar through the bloodstream. This triggers the pancreas to release the hormone insulin. Too much speeds up sugar's conversion into fat, depositing it in places where you don't want it, such as around your belly. And once the muscle and liver stores of glycogen are full, the liver starts to turn excess sugar into fats called triglycerides. It’s not good news. “Get rid of as much sugar as you can from your diet,” says nutritionist Ian Marber. “And that includes date sugar and honey.”
Sugar free gum
When you chew gum you swallow more air, which increases the risk of bloating. All that air gets trapped in your GI tract causes pressure, bloating, and belly expansion - none of which help flatten your middle. Sugar-free versions are no better as the sweeteners they contain are fermented by bacteria in the gut and may also cause bloating. “It’s not the best habit for a flat middle,” says Sutton.
There’s little doubt fizzy drinks are a dietary no-no if you want a flat stomach. After just three weeks of drinking one can of sugary fizzy drink a day, subjects in one US study found that belly fat accumulated and glucose levels rose. Even diet drinks can be problematic and a 14-year study of 66,118 women (supported by many other previous studies) found that diet drinks may be worse than sugar-sweetened drinks at promoting bloat. Artificial sweeteners trick your metabolism into thinking sugar is on its way. “This causes your body to pump out insulin, the fat storage hormone, which lays down more belly fat,” says top trainer Matt Roberts. “They really should be avoided.”