Even at age 17, as a size 8, I was never the proud owner of an incredible stomach - not like my friend Alex whose enviably smooth midriff has always been as sleek and sexy as a surfboard. Hers is the stomach of a Victoria's Secret model.When she slumps forward, her skin crinkles into tiny lines, inlike the doughy rolls that the rest of us have.
While I’ve never been overweight, my stomach on the other hand is the one area of my body that I have always disliked, and being blown up by two 7.5lb babies in the space of two years really didn’t help in the washboard stakes.
Now, as well as getting fit, I have made it my business to seek tummy trimming advice off every nutritional and fitness expert who’s been willing to give it.
So have I seen results? 100 percent yes. OK, it’s nowhere near Alex-perfection, and you might not mistake me for Gisele Bundchen next time you see me in a bikini, but my stomach is smaller, tauter, leaner and I am seriously, astoundingly, UNBELIEVABLY beginning to see my abs.
Annoyingly I didn’t take pictures before I started on my middle management mission but my husband says he can see dramatic change. And as an added bonus, that dreaded muffin top that has lolled over the edges of my jeans for many a year is slowly but surely shrinking away.
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Personal trainer and nutritional expert Steve Mellor of AMP gym in London's Marylebone (without whom I probably wouldn’t own a pair of trainers let alone be writing this piece) has a motto: “Abs are made in the kitchen.”
Basically, if you have a wobbly tummy, going to the gym and doing rounds of sit-ups won’t get rid of the stomach fat. You need to address the fat, by addressing what you eat first. As Olympic Gold medallist Victoria Pendleton once told me, “We’ve all got abs, but you have to reduce your body fat before you can see them.” In short, you can’t drink a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc every night and have the abs of Jessica Ennis Hill .
10 pieces of ab-busting advice that I believe really work
1. Cut back on carbs
Many of us think nothing of getting a sandwich and a packet of crisps at lunchtime, but one of the first things Steve Mellor told me when I first started training with him last year was that when you’re sitting at your desk all day, you don’t need to load yourself up with carbohydrates. If you’re exercising, then your body definitely needs them for energy and the restoration process, but if you don’t exercise them off they can turn to fat in your system.
As a result, I have hugely cut back on lunchtime sandwiches, toast and cereals for breakfast and pasta for supper, unless I’m exercising. I believe this has made a huge difference to my waistline.
2. Ditch the drink
Nutritionist Martin MacDonald of Mac-Nutrition.com works with clients including top athletes on getting the buffest bodies possible. He tells me: “Alcohol is beyond and above the worst thing you can put into your system – it has no nutritional benefit and is a triple-edged sword for fat gain.”
Reason one, he explains, is that “People generally make bad eating decisions after a few drinks,” meaning we readily reach for pizza, takeaway or cheesey chips after a few glasses of wine.
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Secondly, many alcoholic drinks are high in sugar, especially anything with a sugary mixer. Our system, MacDonald explains, sees alcohol as a poison, “Since your body burns alcohol as a preferential fuel source to get rid of it, you don’t burn carbs, proteins or fats.” This means that the sugar in your alcohol plus anything you eat whilst tipsy will go straight to your stomach and hips.
Thirdly, MacDonald explains that alcohol can even change our hormone levels, converting testosterone into oestrogen which makes women bigger and can even bring on 'moobs' in men. Tell your husband/ boyfriend that when he’s reaching for his fifth pint next time.
3. Stop sneaky snacking
For so long we’ve been told to eat ‘little and often’. God knows who came up with this advice because it seems this is now considered wrong. As nutritional therapist Amelia Freer explained to me, snacking in between meals can spike your insulin levels, especially if you’re eating sweet food or carbohydrates.
"Insulin," Amelia explains, "has the job of transporting excess sugar out of the blood. Our body is only comfortable with one-and-a-half to two teaspoons of sugar in your blood at one time. Unless you are a professional athlete, it is most likely that insulin will frogmarch this sugar straight to your hips and tum, creating what we well know as the muffin top or spare tyre."
Freer’s advice is to avoid temptation by cutting out snacks altogether. I found this a tough call but it was by far the one piece of information that gave me immediate results. It also made me conscious of how much I graze throughout the day, and how added sugar crept into my diet. That Elderflower Belvoir cordial I love so much for example had to go. Read see more of Amelia's advice on cutting back sugar
4. Don’t be afraid of fat
Eating more fat was initially a weird concept for me, but I discovered that good fats (e.g. nuts, avocado, feta cheese, goat's cheese, full fat Greek yoghurt) are essential to a healthy body and diet and whatever you might think, if eaten correctly these good fats don’t make you fat (it’s the carbs and sugar that are the main culprits).
I have actually lost weight since eating more of the stuff. The idea of ‘low-fat’ is something that all leading nutritionists now believe to be low-grade advice, and as Martin MacDonald once wisely told me, the concept of low-fat was brought in in the 70s and we have only seen obesity levels rise.
MacDonald says that he rarely recommends anyone eat less than 25 per cent of their diet from fat, and that “shying away from it could affect your immune and hormone function. Also people who shy away from fats often replace it with carbohydrates and sugar which will then lead to much more unstable energy levels and a lower intake of micronutrients such as zinc, magnesium and iron.”
One example of low-fat being bad advice is Special K. It is low in fat yes, but Kellogg's add sugar to make up for blandness of taste. Sugar + carbs does not = the healthy 'red swimsuit' its manufacturers try to make you believe.
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Since I increased the fat in my diet, my hair and nails grow quicker than I can cut them and I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence but I haven’t been ill for a year. A word of warning – avoid all trans fats, which are processed fats found in cakes and biscuits to give them a longer shelf life nad raise your 'bad' LDL cholesterol. If you see the words ‘partially hydrogenated fat’ on a label, run.
5. Eat protein at every meal
If you want to get lean and increase your muscle definition, you need to up your protein intake. But do you actually know why? Martin MacDonald explains, “It’s called the thermic effect of food – protein speeds up your metabolism, but it also provides the building block for so much that happens in your body from cells to muscles, skin, nails and hair as well as hormones.” He suggests that you eat protein at every meal. Try adding eggs, salmon, full fat Greek yoghurt, chicken or turkey to your diet. Protein also makes you feel fuller for longer so you are less likely to snack.
6. Sleep more and reduce stress
I’m not very good at this section as I have children and a full-on job, but lack of sleep and stress can increase cortisol levels (the stress hormone of our fight or flight response) but it can also decrease the thyroid stimulating hormone which will in turn decrease your metabolism and cause weight gain.
MacDonald also explains that “Sleep loss basically increases age-related issues, and it takes longer to stabilise blood sugar levels.” Which could explain why it takes new mums with up-all-night babies so damn long to lose stubborn stomach fat. If this is you, there is hope – once the blighters start sleeping and you do too, that spare tyre should be easier to reduce.
7. Try omega 3 supplements
Many health experts have told me that taking omega supplements can help reduce stomach fat as they help our entire system work more smoothly. MacDonald says, “Fish oils can reduce inflammation, and there is also evidence that they help your heart and help prevent cancer too.” I take a sunflower and flax seed vegetarian option (not that I don't eat fish, I just hate it repeating on me).
It is Omega 6 and 3 combined in a ratio of 4:1, however Amelia recommends you seek advice from a nutritional experts about finding your correct dosage since it can interfere with other medication if you are taking it. There is also increasing evidence, MacDonald says, that taking vitamin D can help with weight loss. He recommends 2500 IUs daily for all his clients.
8. Have a ‘re-feed’ meal
Thankfully belly-blasting is not all about cutting back, and it’s actually not that bad for you to fall off the healthy wagon once a week. In fact, it can help speed things up a bit. MacDonald explains that it’s important to have a ‘re-feed meal’. This means increasing both calories and carbohydrates once a week, “which will replenish the carbohydrate in your muscle and will allow you to maintain exercise intensity.” By this he means a full meal with meat, potatoes, veg by the way; not going out and stuffing your face with a McDonalds'. He also explains that a ‘re-feed’ will speed up your metabolism and increase various hormone levels.
9. Remember your hormonal map
If you’re wondering why you have a spare tyre when your friend has a washboard stomach but you both eat the same, then it might be your DNA and your hormones, explains MacDonald. “We all have a hormonal map,” he explains, “Which affects the way fat is distributed around the body. If you could alter your hormones then you could change the way fat comes off you body.” MacDonald also explains how as you get older, an increase of fat around your middle is often down to hormone changes.
10. Don’t just stick to sit-ups
Of course, I’m absolutely not saying ditch exercise (far from it), cardiovascular workouts will help strip fat all over your body, and since being injured a few times recently I have learned that keeping a strong core is pivotal to maintaining a strong body. However as I’ve learned from some seriously tough core sessions, it’s important not to just stick to the traditional old sit-up to get good abs as these only tackle the mid-stomach area. Instead I do sessions that target the upper, lower and sides of the stomach too, from the plank, to press-ups and leg raises.
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And finally... I would just like to say that acheiving a more toned tummy doesn't happen overnight (it took me year really to see great results), but please stick with it - the above advice seriously works.