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 smoked salmon 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.