Everything you need to lose belly fat, reduce bloat, and get a flatter stomach—without straight-up dieting.
Cut Back On Booze
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We know, this is a bummer, but the liver processes alcohol before other carbs and protein, and the sheer presence of alcohol in the body slows fat burning, says Diane Henderiks, R.D., personal chef and founder of Dish with Diane. You can still hit happy hour, though. Just stick to one drink a day—that's five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or one ounce of a spirit. (Try these low-alcohol cocktails for a healthier buzz.)
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Chill the Eff Out
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Anxiety produces extra cortisol, the hormone that encourages the body to store fat—particularly in the abdominal region. Practicing deep-breathing exercises can help alleviate stress levels, so hit the "pause" button in your mind every hour and take five to 10 deep-belly breaths, inhaling for five counts and exhaling for 10 counts.
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Eating too little will force your body into starvation mode, which will cause it to store added fat for energy (out of fear of not being fed) rather than burning fat and keeping your belly taut, Henderiks says.
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Keep Cardio In Check
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Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, which means the more you have, the faster your metabolism is and the more calories you burn all day long—all key for a flat stomach. Resistance training builds this quality lean muscle, so do two to three total-body strength sessions a week, says Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and author of Beat the Gym: Personal Trainer Secrets Without the Personal Trainer Price Tag. For fat-melting cardio, all you need is to use your weight as your guideline, he adds: If you weigh 145 pounds, do 145 minutes a week, broken up into however fits into your schedule.
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Go for Whole Grains
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In a Penn State study, dieters who ate whole instead of refined grains lost more fat from around their midsections. And Tufts University researchers reported that people who included three servings of whole grains and less than one serving of refined carbs daily had 10 percent less visceral fat than those who didn't follow this diet. (FYI, you might be surprised how many carbs you should eat per day.)
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Work Every Angle
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When doing an abs circuit, think about all three planes of motion, says celebrity trainer Gunnar Peterson, who works with Sofia Vergara, Kim Kardashian, and Vanessa Lachey. Try crunches and reverse crunches to hit your sagittal (front to back and up and down) plane, standing side bends for frontal (side-to-side) movement, and chops or twists for transverse (rotational) action. This will help challenge *and* define your abs.
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Gulp Green Tea
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Multiple studies show that EGCG, an antioxidant in green tea, helps boost metabolism and may specifically target abdominal fat. Most research has used high doses of tea, but even if you can't manage to guzzle gallons, any amount is beneficial. (Here, more health benefits of drinking tea.)
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Not only can a lack of zzz's slow your metabolism, but studies have also shown that people who were sleep-deprived had subcutaneous fat cells (the ones right below your skin) that were more insulin resistant, which can lead to weight gain, says Patricia Bannan, R.D., author of Eat Right When Time Is Tight.
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Hit the Herb Rack
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Ginger, peppermint, and chamomile can all aid in digestion and may reduce bloating, Henderiks says. If you don't like herbal tea, snack on pineapple—it contains bromelain, an enzyme that appears to do the same.
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Follow the 10-Percent Rule
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While no crunch in and of itself will get rid of belly fat, abdominal exercises are the "finishing moves" to sculpt the abs once you've removed excess fat via diet and exercise, Holland says. He suggests spending the majority of your workout focusing on the rest of your body, and dedicating no more than 10 percent of your time to abs work. So if you work out for an hour, plan around six minutes of abs exercises and use the rest of your time for strength training and/or cardio.
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Watch the Sugar
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Research shows the average American eats about 20 teaspoons of sugar daily, often hidden in processed foods, including "healthy" ones such as yogurt, frozen dinners, sauces, and salad dressings. Twenty teaspoons adds up to 325 empty calories a day. And ICYMI, insulin production also increases with sugar intake, which can slow your metabolism, making it harder to burn those empty calories. Read labels and try to reduce your intake as much as possible.
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Go Big or Go Home
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At the gym, focus on movements that work bigger muscle groups and multiple muscle groups (such as squats and lunges) instead of isolation movements (such as leg extensions and leg curls). These exercises burn more calories, which will help torch more body fat so those abs come out of hiding, Peterson says.
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The best diet for abs leading up to a beach weekend? Foods that won't cause extra bloating. That's why Peterson recommends focusing your diet on protein and leafy green vegetables for dinner (and no dessert or nighttime snacks!) to avoid holding water when you wake up. (And be sure to check out these crucial tips to beat belly bloat.)
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Do This Classic Pilates Move
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A classic Pilates move, the roll-up is 38 percent more effective at targeting the rectus abdominis (the "six-pack") and 245 percent more effective at targeting the obliques than a basic crunch, according to an Auburn University study.
To do it, lie faceup with legs straight, and ankles, knees, and thighs together. Flex feet and extend arms overhead. Inhale to prepare as you lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the floor. On your exhale, continue to roll up by drawing in abdominals, reaching arms up and over toward feet. Keep abdominals contracted, with spine rounded in a "C" curve. Pause and inhale. On your exhale, roll down through each vertebra in a controlled movement, keeping heels pressed evenly into the floor the entire way up and down. Do 15 reps, making them as controlled and precise as you can, as many days a week as possible.
Start a Food Journal
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Keeping a food journal is an easy way to control your weight and help you become more aware of any belly-bloating triggers, Bannan says. Write down what you're eating and how your stomach feels throughout the day, and you might discover what isn't treating your tummy kindly. Ask yourself: Do I feel gassy? Am I overfull after just a few bites of certain foods? Does my stomach make sounds or feel swollen following specific meals?
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Pump Up the Potassium
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Your body can retain water when your sodium and potassium levels are out of whack, Bannan says. In addition to keeping your sodium in check, consume potassium-rich foods to maintain the balance and de-bloat your belly. (Plus, it's one of the most important minerals for your workouts.)
Try including 1 medium baked potato without skin (610mg), 1/2 cup white beans (595mg), 1 cup cooked spinach (839mg), 10 dates (466mg), or 1 cup edamame (676mg) daily.
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Try This Plank Move
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Peterson has his clients work up to holding a plank for one minute. Then they progress to performing vacuums during the exercise: Suck in your abs like you're trying to button jeans that are too tight. Hold for three counts, then release for three counts. Repeat until the end of your plank. You'll have to build back up to a minute, but it's worth it, Peterson says.
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If your stomach's natural bacteria falls out of equilibrium, it can slow down your digestion and lead to bloating, Bannan says. Live active cultures in yogurt and probiotic drinks can help rebalance your levels, so aim for one serving a day.
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Avoid Fried Foods
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The fat in fried foods is digested more slowly, which can cause you to feel heavy and puffy, Henderiks says. Good news: You can get a similar taste without as much fat by cooking with an air fryer.
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Make a Mad Dash
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Throw intense, high-speed intervals into your usual cardio workout to burn more calories in a shorter amount of time. And the harder you push it, the more calories you'll burn after your workout too, Holland says, meaning you'll be well on your way to losing belly fat. (Here's more about the afterburn effect and how it can help you lose weight.)
Peterson recommends adding sprints of 10, 20, and 30 seconds and recovering for two to three times that long. Bonus: You can "sprint" on anything: treadmill, bike, rower, swimming, elliptical—you name it.
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Load Up On Healthy Fats
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Monounsaturated fats—such as those in olives, nuts, and avocados—appear to increase fat oxidation, especially dreaded belly pudge. Plus they can help you stick to your diet, as fat is filling and adds flavor to your meals, Bannan says. All fats are high in calories, though, so stick to two or three servings a day and watch your portion sizes.
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Grab a Swiss Ball
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Your coworkers who sit on Swiss balls may look a little odd, but this trick makes you engage your abs, Holland says. Try lifting one or both legs every half hour or so, which will work your core stabilizer muscles even more as you try to balance.
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Sneak In a Mini Abs Workout Anywhere
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Drawing your navel in toward your spine activates and strengthens the transverse abdominis (your deepest ab muscle) Do it in the shower, at work, wherever!
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Stay Conscious of Carbs
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Carbohydrates take water to metabolize, and too much fluid can make you feel bloated, Henderiks says. But that doesn't mean you have to ban all carbs from your diet. Opt for complex, starchy, and fiber-filled ones such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, legumes, oats, leafy greens, and asparagus, which are digested more slowly. Try to limit your daily tally to about 200 grams.
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Ditch Diet Foods
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Sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and mannitol are used as sweeteners in diet products—and they produce gas in the intestines, Henderiks says, which can make you balloon. (If drinking diet soda is a hard habit to break, try making this healthy carbonated drink instead.)
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Peterson is a fan of Chaturanga Dandasana—aka yoga pushup—for the extension and isometric contraction it provides. From plank, bend your elbows and begin lowering toward the floor, with every part of your body an equal distance from the floor. Keep your elbows close to your body, abs engaged (not clenched), back straight, thigh muscles active, and glutes soft. Start by holding the pose above the floor for five full, complete breaths, and work up to 10. Push back up to plank in four counts. Do four reps every other day.
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Shake Your Salt Habit
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Your body needs some sodium to function, but too much can lead to fluid retention in the gut, Henderiks says. Put down the shaker and forgo processed and prepared foods as much as possible in favor of homemade meals so you can control the salt. Experts recommend maxing out at 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day, but this is one time when less is better.
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Include the bicycle in your abdominals workout, Peterson suggests. A 2012 study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) found this exercise to be the most effective move for strengthening the rectus abdominis, the long, flat muscle extending the length of the front of the abdomen. Do two to three sets of 12 to 15 reps three times a week.
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Stop Sipping from Straws
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You likely don't think you're eating air, but talking while noshing, drinking from a straw, and chewing gum can all cause air to accumulate in your stomach, making it expand over your waistband. In addition to breaking those bad habits, taking smaller bites can also help you keep the air out, says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, R.D., author of The Belly Fat Fix and a national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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Laugh It Off
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Having a good LOL causes your abs to contract, Peterson half-kids. Obviously that's not all you need to do for an A-list midsection, but it's definitely an excuse to not take yourself so seriously, even if you do have your mind set on reaching a fitness goal.
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