Losing Belly Fat: A Nutritionist's Top 5 Foods
As a registered dietitian nutritionist, here’s my take on belly fat: it's not about vanity. Numerous studies show that holding extra fat around the midsection increases health risks. This is particularly true for people with more visceral fat. Unlike subcutaneous fat, the jiggly kind just under the skin, visceral belly fat lies deep within the abdominal cavity and surrounds internal organs.
Visceral belly fat fuels inflammation, a known trigger of premature aging and disease. This is likely one reason why having more of this type of belly fat is linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, certain cancers, and even reduced cognitive functioning with aging. (There's no surefire way to know if you have visceral fat short of getting an MRI, because it lies under the abdominal muscles and inside the body cavity. But some studies associate visceral fat with a waist measurement of 35 inches or higher in women and 40 inches or higher in men.)
It’s important to note that excess visceral fat is risky for people who aren’t overweight or obese. In other words, even if your body mass index (BMI) is within the normal range, holding on to visceral fat can put your health at risk. A 2019 study published in JAMA found that among over 150,000 women, those whose weight fell into a healthy range but had more belly fat incurred a greater risk of dying from any cause, compared to healthy-weight women who didn’t carry fat in the midsection.
While chronic stress and poor sleep quality are known to increase visceral fat, exercise helps, and certain foods can have a significant impact on reducing belly fat. One recent study found that simply improving overall diet quality can curb belly fat accumulation. Researchers specifically looked at closer adherence to a Mediterranean diet, which involves nine components. These include eating more veggies, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and fish; eating more monounsaturated fat from foods like extra virgin olive oil and avocado versus animal-based saturated fat; and taking in less red meat and alcohol.
Some specific foods and nutrients have also been shown to help target belly fat, including a few Mediterranean diet staples. Here are five, plus how to incorporate each of these healthful foods into your usual eating routine.
Avocados are nutrient powerhouses that pack good fat in addition to fiber, antioxidants, and numerous vitamins and minerals—including potassium, a mineral that supports heart function and also helps regulate blood pressure by acting as a natural diuretic, to sweep excess sodium and fluid out of the body.
A recent study shows that this satisfying fruit can also help attack belly fat. In the study, 111 adults were randomized into two groups. One group received one fresh avocado as part of a daily meal, while the second group ate the same number of calories without avocado. After three months, the avocado eaters experienced a reduction in visceral belly fat, an effect that was not seen in the control (avocado-free) group.
Even if you don’t eat a whole avocado daily, incorporating this good fat food into your diet more often is a smart, health-protective strategy. Whip avocado into a smoothie, mash and spread it on toast, sprinkle it onto salads, black bean tacos, lentil soup, or a baked potato, or just enjoy half of an avocado as an accompaniment to any meal. You can even puree avocado and incorporate into chocolate pudding!
RELATED: 5 Amazing Health Benefits of Avocado
Nuts, a staple of the Mediterranean diet, provide healthful fat in addition to plant protein, antioxidants, fiber, and a wide range of vitamins and minerals. Among them are many nutrients adults tend to fall short on, like magnesium, which supports mental health and sleep.
Government tracking data shows that adults who regularly eat a daily average of at least a quarter ounce of tree nuts—including almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, filberts (hazelnuts), macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts—have a lower BMI and blood pressure than non-nut eaters. They also have smaller waist measurements, an indicator of belly fat accumulation.
If you’re not allergic or sensitive to nuts, they’re easy to add to nearly any meal or snack. Blend nut butter into a smoothie, add nuts or drizzle nut butter into overnight oats, sprinkle nuts onto salads, cooked veggies, and stir fries, snack on nuts as is or combined with fruit. You can even whip up a batch of energy balls by combining nut butter and chopped nuts with add-ins like oats, cinnamon, minced dried fruit, and chopped dark chocolate.
RELATED: The Healthiest Nuts for Your Body
I have always considered lentils to be one of the most underrated superfoods on the planet. In addition to being naturally gluten-free, affordable, eco-friendly, versatile, and satisfying, lentils are incredibly nutritious. They’re chock full of plant protein, key minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, and they’re king when it comes to fiber.
A classic study that tracked belly fat among adults over a five-year period found that for each 10 gram increase in soluble fiber consumed, the rate of visceral fat accumulation decreased by 3.7%. One cup of cooked lentils provides 14 grams of fiber, with about half as soluble fiber, the type that’s also known to help support bowel regularity and lower cholesterol.
Opt for lentils in place of meat as the protein source in a meal, seasoned with herbs and combined with extra virgin olive oil, a generous portion of veggies, and a small serving of healthy starch from sweet potato or fingerling potato, spaghetti squash, or quinoa. Add lentils to a salad, make a simple lentil curry, an instapot lentil soup, or transform these gems into meatless meatballs or a lentil loaf.
The popularity of keto and paleo diets have caused many people to shun grains altogether, but whole grains are actually health-protective in a number of ways, including a reduction in belly fat. Research that involved more than 2,800 participants of the Framingham Heart Study found that whole-grain intake was inversely associated with both subcutaneous and visceral belly fat, whereas refined grains, like white bread, rice, and pasta, increased belly fat.
Instead of shunning all grains, consume moderate amounts of whole grains or portions that are in line with your energy demands (meaning smaller servings when you’re less active, and larger portions when you’re more active). Good options include oats at breakfast, quinoa added to a salad at lunch, and brown or wild rice added to a stir-fry at dinner. Homemade popcorn, which makes a great crunchy and filling snack, also counts as a whole grain.
Vitamin D is important for a number of functions, including immunity, bone-density regulation, and mental health. Research also shows that a low blood vitamin D level is tied to an increase in both total body fat and visceral belly fat in women, and visceral belly fat in men.
Few foods are significant sources of vitamin D, and one of the best is wild salmon, which can be purchased fresh or in pouches and tins. A four-ounce portion of tinned salmon can provide 80% of the daily value for vitamin D. Add it to avocado toast at breakfast, salads at lunch, transform into salmon burgers, or toss with veggies, olives, and chickpea pasta for dinner.
If you don’t eat fish or don’t like salmon, look for foods that have been fortified with vitamin D, like certain plant milks, or consider taking a vitamin D supplement that provides 800-1000 IU of vitamin D daily.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
To get more nutrition and diet tips delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Balanced Bites newsletter