The notorious spare tire, muffin top and FUPA haunt many of our waistlines like an unexorcisable demon.  We workout and eat moderately healthy compared to most people we know but that last five pounds hanging on our paunch refuses to let go.

Chances are we are overestimating the time we spend working out and we are underestimating our caloric intake. Don’t be ashamed because we all do it, but now is the time to do something about it.  We dream of little waists and rock-hard abs but the reality is unless we put in hard work, the results are futile.

Fat around our midsection can become harmful to our health if we choose to ignore it.  Fat that settles in deep around our organs, often called visceral fat, has been linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease.

However, this fat is often our body’s preferred fuel source during times of energy demand.  Meaning, when we are physically active, the fat deep inside our gut is put to work right away.

Those of us that have more than a few pounds to lose around the middle often see immediate results after starting an aerobic exercise program.  Unfortunately, it is the belly flab we can grab just below the skin’s surface that tends to be the most difficult to lose.

Achieving a healthy body weight and more importantly a healthy percent body fat will help us reach our goal of a sexier middle.  To know if you are at a healthy body weight or to determine what a healthy body weight is for you, you will need to calculate your BMI.  There are plenty of credible web sites that do this for you.  Check out the following site from the Centers for Disease Control.

Since our BMI does not tell us the whole story, the next order of business is to determine our percent body fat.  Nowadays many home scales have this feature by use of bio-electrical impedance.   These scales are not touted as the most accurate and results can be skewed by fluid balance, but in my opinion it’s definitely a great place to start. A good rule of thumb is to perform your measurements around the same time of day using the same tool (scale) to track your progress.

If you don’t have a scale at home with this feature many local gyms offer this service.  So what is a healthy body fat percent?  For men the range is 12-20% and for women 20-30%.  Of course many elite athletes have a much lower percent body fat, which does affect the degree of visual muscle definition.

However, keep in mind there is a line that can be crossed between a healthy and unhealthy body fat percent.  We need fat in our diet and body in order to function properly and maintain good health.  So the lower the body fat percent is, doesn’t always equal better.

Now comes the real work.  Whether you just want to put a dent in your midsection or you are determined to achieve chiseled abs, then the following tips will help lead you to success.

  • Go high-intensity – The key to calorie burning is to accelerate your metabolism.  To do this you need to get your heart pumping with endurance exercise also called aerobic exercise.  Endurance exercise strengthens your heart and lungs allowing for more oxygen to be delivered to your muscles, which will then burn more fat.  Running, cycling, spinning, swimming, cross-fit and high-intensity interval training are all good ways to speed up your metabolism and burn more calories.   It’s also a good idea to change up your workouts to provide a constant challenge to your body.   Your goal is at least 30 minutes 5-7 days a week.  Caution to those who are new to exercise: start slow and build up to a higher intensity level.
  • Concentrate on your core – Any trainer will tell you that doing a thousand sit-ups or crunches daily is not the magic bullet to a skinny middle. These once thought of as ab-blasting exercises can also lead to lower back pain and injury.   According to an article from Harvard’s HEALTHbeat, core exercises work more than just your abs, providing a better balance of muscles worked with less potential injury than with sit-ups.  A stronger core can also improve your posture and decrease back strain from your day-to-day activities.  An easy starter exercise to tighten up and strengthen your core is the plank.
  • Get your Zzzz’s – Research shows that getting a good night’s rest is important for weight management.  Gherlin, which signals our body to start eating and leptin, which signals our body to stop eating are two important hormones involved in our body’s hunger and satiety cycle.  Without adequate sleep, research has shown our body has an excess amount of gherlin and an inadequate amount of leptin, which is one of the theories behind why sleep is important to weight management.   Another theory is when we’re exhausted from sleep deprivation; our body is looking for quick energy that we typically find in nutrient-poor foods such as doughnuts, cookies and chips.  These foods leave us unsatisfied so we go back for more continuing the vicious cycle.  Bottom line, aim for 8 hours of sleep a night.
  • Diet dedication – Time and time again we visit our food choices.  It’s not uncommon for health and fitness enthusiast to claim that the key to a sleek and skinny tummy is found in our kitchen.  It is necessary to focus on a diet rich in whole, less processed grains (brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, barley, millet and steel-cut oats), vegetables, fruits and lean proteins.  Cutting back on added sugars and processed grains is a step in the right direction.  Follow the new Choose My Plate guidelines that illustrate half of our plate filled with fruits and vegetables.  Put an emphasis on vegetables.  They’re often the lowest calorie food group with the highest nutrient density.   Lastly, we want to include a variety of lean to moderate proteins at every meal.  Lean to moderate protein sources include beans, legumes, egg whites, tofu and tempeh, seafood, skinless chicken, turkey breast and lean cuts of beef and pork (round steaks, roasts, loins).   Other vegetarian options, which do contain a good amount of heart-healthy fat, include nuts, nut butters and seeds.

This article was written by: Catherine Wallace, MSH, RD, LD/N