En español | Celebrity trainer and best-selling author Jorge Cruise isn't shy when it comes to talking belly fat — and how he, 40 pounds overweight years ago, carried a lot of it. “Belly fat robs us of confidence at any age,” says Cruise, who is approaching 50 with a very flat belly. “But more than that, our waistline is our lifeline, particularly as we get older. You can have hip fat, butt fat and arm fat, and still be relatively healthy. But if you have belly fat, it will crush your health."
Researchers agree: Belly fat, specifically something called visceral fat, is harmful to your health. This fat in the belly area can lead to health problems including cardiac disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, dementia and stroke. What's more, it's an indicator of premature death.
This is the type of fat that affects the health of millions of Americans, with more than 50 percent of U.S. adults struggling with it, according to researchers from the National Institutes of Health.
If your belly protrudes outward, you're likely one of them, though a more accurate way to determine if you're at risk is to pull out the tape measure. A waist measurement of 35 inches or more for women or 40 inches or more for men is an indication of bad belly fat.
Experts say the only way to get rid of belly fat is a comprehensive lifestyle approach that incorporates both diet and exercise. “The ideal approach involves addressing your overall lifestyle, including eating a balanced diet of whole, naturally fiber-rich foods, being regularly active, prioritizing sleep, not drinking excessively and managing stress,” says Cynthia Sass, a private practice dietitian who works with clients long distance and specializes in nutrition for mental and physical performance and longevity.
Exercise to get rid of belly fat
Regular, consistent cardiovascular, or aerobic, exercise like walking, running and swimming has been shown to help burn calories and some fat. But high-intensity intermittent exercise (HIIE) — also referred to as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) — is a more efficient way of exercising, getting more results in less time.
HIIT is a form of cardiovascular exercise that alternates between short bouts of high-intensity and low-intensity exercise for the duration of the workout, which is usually 30 minutes or less. This type of interval training includes walking or running at a slow pace, then speeding it up, then repeating. It can also include aerobic, boot-camp-style cycling, or any classes that alternate between slower to moderate-intensity and high-intensity movements.
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"High-intensity interval training activates fat burning all day long, so you're burning fat while you're at rest,” says Cruise, author of The Belly Fat Cure. Cruise recommends an eight-minute daily workout that alternates between low-intensity yoga moves and high-intensity ones to boost metabolism, burn fat and reduce weight. “HIIT yoga gives you all the same metabolic benefits of traditional weight training and cardio,” Cruise says, “but without having to go to a gym or invest in expensive equipment, and, most importantly, without the same risk of injury."
What you eat matters, too
"You can't out-exercise a bad diet,” says Michele Promaulayko, author of Sugar Free 3: The Simple 3-Week Plan for More Energy, Better Sleep & Surprisingly Easy Weight Loss! (2019). “Eating a healthy diet and working out are great companions.” Here's how to revamp your diet for a flatter belly after 50:
Cut down on sugar
Sugar — particularly hidden sugar in the diet — is one of the leading causes of fat and specifically belly fat, according to Promaulayko. “Excess sugar is a major driver of belly fat and fat in general because we only need very little for energy. The rest is stored as fat. And the fact is, we're getting way more than we need via added and hidden sugars,” Promaulayko says. “We're only supposed to be getting 10 percent of our daily calories from sugar, but we're getting about 40 percent of our daily calories from sugar.
Sass also recommends cutting down on sugar in the form of empty carbs like cookies, doughnuts, muffins and white bread, all of which contribute to belly fat.
Eat a plant-based diet
Sass recommends eating a healthy, balanced, plant-based diet. “Plant foods rich in monounsaturated fat — avocado and avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, whole Mediterranean olives and olive tapenade, nuts and nut butter — as part of a healthy balanced diet may help reduce belly fat,” she says. These healthy fats have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation, two conditions that are also linked to belly fat, she adds.
Pulses, the umbrella term for beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas, are another important food group, Sass says. “The unique combination of fiber and plant protein found in pulses makes them an excellent food for regulating blood sugar and insulin,” she says. “Pulses have been shown to help reduce body fat, and regular pulses eaters have smaller waist measurements and an over 20 percent lower risk of obesity."
Research has also shown that people who eat whole grains lose more belly fat than those who eat refined grains. “Whole grain eaters also experienced greater improvements in C-reactive protein, a blood marker for inflammation, which is tied to belly fat,” says Sass, adding that soluble fiber is also key. “One study found that for every 10-gram increase in soluble fiber eaten per day, visceral fat was reduced by almost 4 percent over five years,” Sass says. “Pulses are an excellent source. Other foods that provide soluble fiber include oranges, apples, pears, figs, broccoli, brussels sprouts, sweet potato, oats and avocado."
Try intermittent fasting
There are many types — from time-restricted eating (limiting your eating window to a certain amount of time per day) to alternate-day fasting, where you limit calories to 500 or 600 two nonconsecutive days a week, to brief continuous fasts, Sass says. “Intermittent fasting has been shown to help reduce belly fat,” she says. But what you eat when you're not fasting is key to whether you'll lose weight.
Cruise himself follows an intermittent fasting diet and says he's never felt better. He fasts for 20 hours and eats one traditional meal a day during a four-hour window. During his 20-hour fasts, he has what he calls “flat belly meals,” which are essentially snacks limited to a mix of high-fiber chia seeds, almond milk, avocado oil and stevia, a natural sweetener. “These turn off the hunger without breaking the fast,” Cruise says. “The result is you're never hungry, and you lose weight and belly fat.”