Having a flat belly is a pretty universal desire.
But how do we get there?
Claims are everywhere. If you believe what you see online, there are exercises that give you six-pack abs in 30 days, tart-cherry-based diets that eliminate flab in a jiffy or, my favorite, "belly-fat-fighting pills."
"There are an infinite set of ... claims out there spread by the fitness, diet and supplement industry," says Dr. Scott Kahan, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness in Washington, D.C.
"The claims are overinflated or just plain wrong," he says.
So, as much as you don't want to hear it, fighting belly fat is neither fast nor easy. You have to go back to the basics: Make general health and fitness part of your everyday life.
"Exercise, nutrition, sleep and reducing stress are all important factors in reducing belly fat in particular and improving general health," Kahan says.
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Let's consider the types of belly fat.
There is subcutaneous fat, which is the love-handle kind. It's unsightly but not metabolically active. In other words, it sits there without creating too much havoc in our bodies, says Cassia Denton, a personal trainer and group fitness director at Balance Gym in Washington.
But then there is visceral belly fat, the fat that surrounds your organs. This is potentially dangerous.
"These visceral fat cells actually pump out hormones into your body. They're like an endocrine organ," Denton says. "They can directly affect your LDL levels adversely." These fat cells and the hormones they create can also increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes, she says. Finally, they increase inflammation in the body.
How do you know if you have this potentially dangerous type of fat?
One indication is your waist circumference. Anything more than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women may raise a red flag to your doctor and warrant investigation.
Also, consider where fat is deposited. Having an apple-shaped body is an indication that there may be a concern regarding visceral fat.
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Now let's see what we can do to beat the bulge.
Kahan recommends the government guidelines of 150 minutes of cardio a week and a couple of resistance training "bouts," as he puts it.
Denton would like to see more emphasis on resistance training because it helps create more lean muscle mass, which helps raise your overall metabolism. Moderate aerobic work, such as running, also has a place. Resistance training can't be done every day because the body needs time to recover, while steady-state aerobic work can be done more often, even daily.
So if you want to work out every day, try alternating cardio and resistance, she says.
Resistance training improves the resting metabolic rate and also appears to improve the health of the muscle cells, Kahan says.
And finally, will it help our belly shape if we do a thousand crunches?
"You can tone, but you can't spot-reduce," Kahan says.
When it comes to nutrition, there are several key points, says Rebecca Mohning, a Washington area registered dietitian and owner of the Expert Nutrition website.
"Hydration and increasing fiber in the diet are important," she says.
Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, beans and vegetables, are also key in creating a healthful diet that reduces belly fat.
Mohning recommends eating slowly and reducing sugar, which causes inflammation and metabolic disorder in the body.
Eating enough protein as we age is also important. As we hit middle age, as much as 30 grams of protein per meal can be helpful, she says.
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Surprisingly, though, Mohning considers neither nutrition nor exercise to be the prime weapons in the fight against a tubby tummy. Instead, she points to sleep and stress.
"I would say No. 1 is sleep, No. 2 is stress, followed by nutrition and then exercise," she says.
While we can't affect our genetics in terms of where we deposit fat, we can affect our levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which has been shown to specifically increase belly fat.
Gabriella Boston is a fitness trainer and freelance writer.