Raise your hand if you've ever been asked, "So, when are you due?"...after you've given birth (like, way after). Yeah, we've all been there. Even once we've managed to squeeze back into our prepregnancy jeans, the belly tends to linger—and, let's be honest, spill out over the top of said jeans. And it's not our fault! Thanks to the hormonal changes of pregnancy (and maybe breastfeeding), loss of elasticity in the abdomen, and sleep deprivation, new (and not so new) moms are particularly prone to belly fat, says Rebecca Booth, M.D., an ob-gyn in Louisville, KY, and author of The Venus Week: Discover the Powerful Secret of Your Cycle... at Any Age. And while this jiggly, wiggly thing can certainly be a blow to the ego, it can also be a blow to our health. "The changes in our metabolism can add extra weight around our middles, putting us at increased risk of heart disease, dementia, and certain cancers," says Dr. Booth. Jeez, isn't it bad enough we can no longer wear our shirts tucked in? The good news: It's completely reversible. The belly is one of the quickest places we lose weight, and it's easier than you think. In fact, experts agree that the best way to get rid of belly fat is to eat. That's right—according to a slew of recent studies, foods we already know and love have the greatest waist-whittling power around. Up next, eight taste treats that can help you trim your tummy for good (or at least until you have your next kid).
Berries, Cherries & Grapes
"Anthocyanins" is the buzzword here. Besides giving grapes, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and tart cherries their vibrant color, research shows these plant chemicals also burn abdominal fat. (FYI: Tart cherries are different from the traditional variety; look for them dried or in the frozen-foods section.) "The fat tissue in the belly is more easily burned than fat in other areas and may be more sensitive to the effects of anthocyanins," says University of Michigan researcher Mitch Seymour, Ph.D. These colorful fruits are also rich in heart-healthy anti-oxidants and fiber—so include them in your daily servings (two cups) regularly.
Milk, yogurt and cheese are jam-packed with whey, a protein that supports the formation of lean body mass (guess Little Miss Muffet was on to something). That means the calories ingested from low-fat dairy don't get stapled to your gut. Dairy also helps fill you up and can increase overall weight loss, so it's a win-win-win. Aim for three servings of low-fat or nonfat dairy a day (in real life, a serving equals an ounce of cheese or a cup of yogurt). Try cottage cheese, string cheese or Greek yogurt (swap it for sour cream in dips and on potatoes). Products with fruit and nuts mixed in have added sugar and calories; go for plain and add your own berries, nuts, and granola.
We don't have to tell you that women in their childbearing years are prone to fluid retention. Our monthly cycles plus a diet high in salty processed foods can result in three to five pounds of sheer water weight—a prime contributor to belly bloat. Cutting back on salt is a no-brainer (less than 2,300 milligrams a day is the ideal), but sometimes a girl's just got to have a potato chip. Counter salty cave-ins with foods rich in potassium, like avocados, orange juice, bananas, baked potatoes (with the skin), sweet potatoes and spinach. "Sodium keeps water outside the cells, but potassium brings it into the cells, where it belongs," explains Ashley Koff, R.D., a registered dietitian in Los Angeles.
Skinless chicken breasts and turkey cutlets, egg whites, fish and pork tenderloin are ideal for trimming our middles because they take longer to digest than carbohydrates, which means we feel fuller longer. And just like whey protein, the protein found in these foods works to build muscle, so they won't contribute to belly fat when enjoyed in moderation, either. What exactly is moderate? If you're eating an 1,800- to 2,000-calorie diet, you should factor in about six ounces of lean protein a day (a three-ounce portion is equivalent in size to a deck of cards).
In addition to good-for-you fiber, whole grains contain magnesium and chromium. These two incredibly important nutrients combat cortisol (a stress hormone that directs fat to be stored around the waist) and keep down insulin production (high levels of the hormone also encourage fat to pile on around the tummy). Participants in one study who ate four to seven daily servings of whole-grain foods (the recommended amount is three a day) lost twice as much belly fat as those eating refined carbs. To pack the most punch, go for the grains in their natural form (oats, brown or wild rice or quinoa) rather than whole-grain flour or supplements.
Higher-fat foods will leave you more satiated, but all fat is not created equal. Saturated fat (think butter, cream and lard) is packed with "bad" LDL cholesterol. But the unsaturated fat in avocados, nuts, olives, dark chocolate and flaxseed oil can lower LDL levels and keep weight-regulating hormones in balance. Omega-3 fatty acids (a polyunsaturated fat in wild salmon, cod and walnuts) aid in regulating blood sugar, a major factor in waist thickening. Watch portion sizes, and try these snacks: a quarter of an avocado spread on tomato slices, a handful of almonds, a half-cup of pistachios, a few olives or a square of dark chocolate (nice!).
Genius diet discovery: New research has found a direct link between consuming green tea and smaller waistlines. It's a three-pronged attack on belly fat: Green tea contains compounds called catechins that boost energy expenditure, increase the release of fat from fat cells—especially in the abdomen—and speed up the burning of fat by the liver, particularly after meals. Study participants drank four to five cups a day, but any amount will have some benefit. Caffeine concerns? One cup of green tea contains about half as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. If you prefer decaf green tea, the catechin content is lower than in regular, but there's still enough to have an effect.
This superfood contains resistant starch, an ab-fat fighter that's also found in potatoes, bananas and corn. Resistant starch does not turn to sugar like most other carbs; instead, it passes through the body undigested, acting like a fiber, explains Keri Gans, R.D., a registered dietitian in New York City and member of the American Dietetic Association. She suggests adding chickpeas or kidney beans to your salad—even bean dip will do the trick (yum!). If you're buying canned beans, look for low-sodium versions and rinse them well before using. Shoot for a half-cup of beans a day. For a healthy side dish, mix one-half cup of corn with black beans, tomatoes and red onion.
Meals Your Belly Will Love
Don't panic—there's no need to eat 87 things a day! Lots of our flat-belly foods have multiple benefits. Take an avocado, for instance: It provides potassium, protein and healthy fat in one serving. We asked The Food Network's Ellie Krieger, R.D. (a Parenting Mom Squad member!), to share a few yummy, waist-friendly meal ideas from her book So Easy. No asparagus in the fridge or time to caramelize onions? No worries—a simple bowl of whole-grain cereal with skim milk is also a pooch-fighting powerhouse!
1 Nonfat Greek yogurt topped with nuts, mixed berries, honey, cinnamon and a touch of vanilla extract
2 Whole-grain toast with one fried egg, a slice of smoked turkey and chopped asparagus
3 Banana/strawberry smoothie made with nonfat milk, unsalted almonds (they'll grind up smooth in the blender) and wheat germ
1 Whole-wheat pita stuffed with sliced egg whites, avocado, cucumber, tomatoes, hummus and hot sauce
2 Grilled salmon over Bibb lettuce with red new potatoes, green beans, kalamata olives and a lemon-olive-oil dressing
3 Chicken salad with red grapes, sliced almonds, curry powder and cilantro (use nonfat yogurt and a touch of mayonnaise and serve over salad greens)
1 Chicken-mushroom-cheddar whole-wheat quesadilla with baby spinach and caramelized onions
2 Whole-wheat pasta primavera (toss in carrots, mushrooms, red bell pepper and tomatoes and top with grated parmesan)
3 Sirloin steak with garlic mashed potatoes (leave on the peels and use low-sodium chicken broth and olive oil to mash) and steamed spinach
4 Salad greens topped with white beans and shaved parmesan cheese, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar
4 Sneaky Waist Inflators
- Stress Cortisol (the fight-or-flight hormone released from the adrenal gland) increases blood sugar, which increases insulin, which increases the deposit of belly fat.
- Sleep deprivation Being overly tired leads to higher cortisol levels (see above) and throws your appetite-regulating hormones out of whack. And that—you know what's coming next—can result in binge eating.
- Low vitamin D A vitamin D deficiency can contribute to blood-sugar-regulation problems, insulin resistance and, yep, tummy rolls.
- Constipation If you don't keep things moving, you know where it will all sit. Get regular with high-fiber foods (broccoli, peas, pears, ground flaxseeds) and lots of water. A probiotic supplement—which has good bacteria to aid digestive health—will help, too.