Most of us want a flat stomach (I know I do), but when it comes to our collective dream of a flatter tummy, there’s good news and bad news. First the good: It’s possible to get a flatter stomach without doing endless sit-ups or crunches.
In fact, all of the tips I’m going to discuss are non-workout-related, meaning it’s possible to flatten your belly by making changes to your lifestyle, not necessarily to your workout routine (though hitting the gym once in a while is never a bad idea).
Now for the bad news: Carrying excess pounds in your midsection isn’t good for your health, and I’m not even talking about the extra weight.
1. Eat Smaller Meals More Often
Instead of three big meals per day, try eating smaller meals more often. This can keep you free of the bloated feeling that often follows large meals (think Thanksgiving). Eating more frequently can also help control blood sugar and manage hunger.
So go for five to six small meals each day, but make sure the quantity of food and calories are proportionate to your needs. To create a daily meal plan that includes the recommended amounts of all major nutrients, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate web site.
2. Eat Foods That Contain Probiotics
Consuming foods that contain probiotics (aka live “good” bacteria) can help reduce belly bloat caused by an overabundance of “bad” flora in your gut. “Eating dairy with probiotics will help to ease digestive woes that can cause bloating,” says Lakatos.
Belly Buster: Add foods that are good sources of probiotics to your daily intake. Kefir and yogurt are great, as long as the label says they contain live and active cultures.
3. Limit Sodium Intake.
Highly processed foods tend to be high in sodium and low in fiber, both of which can contribute to that bloated feeling, Jensen says.
Get in the habit of reading food labels, Blatner advises. When buying processed, canned, or frozen foods, shoot for no more than 500 mg of sodium per serving in any product — or a total of 1,500 to 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Look for labels that say “sodium free,” “low sodium,” or “very low sodium.”
4. Avoid Constipation.
Too little fiber, fluids, and physical activity can lead to constipation, which can result in bloating, Jensen says.
To avoid this, eat a diet high in fiber (25 grams per day for women and 38 for men) from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Also, drink plenty of fluids (aim for 6-8 glasses a day) and aim for physical activity for at least 30 minutes, five times a week.
If you’re eating a low-fiber diet, gradually bump up the fiber level, making sure you also drink plenty of fluids for better tolerance.
5. Lower Your Stress
Life’s little stresses actually increase the brain’s production of cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone that was useful when we, like, lived in caves. Today, cortisol just causes extra fat storage in the abdomen, rather than helping you outrun a saber-toothed tiger.
Belly Buster: Activities like yoga or deep breathing can help reduce stress and cut anxiety. “They activate the body’s parasympathethic nervous system to help you automatically relax,” says Lyssie Lakatos, the other half of The Nutrition Twins, who, like her sister, is also a registered dietitian and personal trainer.
6. Get More Sleep
Cortisol kicks into high gear when you aren’t getting enough shut-eye. “Cortisol — the same hormone that increases during stress — is affected when you’re sleep-deprived, and that can increase belly fat,” says Shames. “Plus, when you’re tired and craving energy, you often turn to food because cortisol also makes you feel hungrier.”
Belly Buster: Shoot for at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night to arm yourself against the battle of the belly bulge.
7. Skip Belly-Bloating Beverages
Don’t want a beer belly? Avoid alcohol. “The occasional social drink is fine, but a little goes a long way,” says Shames. “Large amounts of alcoholic beverages — especially in the evening — are proven to have a bloating effect.
Other beverages that aren’t helping your cause: coffee (it can irritate your GI track) and soda. “Many dieters believe that drinking zero-calorie soda won’t have negative impact on their physique, but the truth is that the carbonation in fizzy drinks, even sparkling water — can cause belly bloating when the gas from the carbonation settles in the stomach.”
Belly Buster: Stick with regular ol’ water for best results.
7. Avoid Salt And Sneaky High-Sodium Foods
Salt causes gastrointestinal discomfort and excessive bloating to the midsection. “Sodium… attracts and retains water, giving you a puffy appearance,” says Lakatos.
Belly Buster: Stay away from prepackaged meats and processed foods with large amounts of seasoning. These are subtle sources of high sodium that can lead to a tubby tummy.
8. Rule Out Wheat Allergies or Lactose Intolerance.
Food allergies and intolerances can cause gas and bloating. But these need to be confirmed by your doctor. Many people self-diagnose these conditions and unnecessarily eliminate healthy dairy and whole grains from their diets. If you suspect you have an allergy or intolerance, see your doctor for tests.
You may benefit from reducing the amount of the suspected food or eating it with other foods. In the case of dairy, it can help to choose aged cheeses and yogurts, which are lower in lactose.
9. Don’t Eat Too Fast.
Eating quickly and not chewing your food well can cause air swallowing that leads to bloating, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, author of The Flexitarian Diet.
So slow down and enjoy your food. Your meals should last at least 30 minutes. Also, keep in mind that digestion begins in the mouth and you can decrease bloating just by chewing your food more, Blatner says.
There’s another benefit to slowing things down. When you take your time to thoroughly chew and taste your food, your snack or meal becomes more satisfying. And studies have shown that if you eat more slowly, you may end up eating less.
10. Don’t Overdo Carbonated Drinks.
The fizz in carbonated drinks (even diet ones) can cause gas to get trapped in your belly, Blatner says.
Instead, drink water flavored with lemon, lime, or cucumber. Or just reduce the number of fizzy drinks you consume each day. Try some peppermint tea for a soothing beverage that may help reduce bloat.
11. Don’t Overdo Chewing Gum.
Chewing gum can also lead to swallowing air, which can cause bloating.
If you’ve got a gum habit, alternate chewing gum with sucking on a piece of hard candy or eating a healthy, high-fiber snack like fruit, vegetables, or lower-fat popcorn.
12. Watch Out for Sugar-Free Foods.
“Many of my patients suffer from bloating because they consume too much sugar alcohol in artificially sweetened foods and drinks,” Blatner says. And that can lead to bloating.
Experts recommend consuming no more than 2 or 3 servings of artificially sweetened foods and drinks per day.
13. Go Slow with Beans and Gassy Vegetables.
If you’re not used to eating beans, they can cause that gassy feeling. So can the cruciferous family of vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.
That doesn’t mean you should give up on these super-nutritious, high-fiber vegetables.
“Don’t be nervous about beans,” Blatner says. “Just work them into your diet slowly until your body adjusts to the compounds that can initially cause gas.”
Or, you can take an anti-gas product, which can help reduce gas from beans or vegetables.
14. Try Anti-Bloating Foods and Drinks.
A few studies suggest that peppermint tea, ginger, pineapple, parsley, and yogurts containing probiotics (“good” bacteria) may help reduce bloating.
“These are safe foods that are good for you when used appropriately, so why not try them and see if they help you de-bloat?” Blatner says.
A Final Word About Stomach Fat
Experts agree that you shouldn’t fast, skip meals, or use laxatives or water pills to help you de-bloat or lose weight.
If you’re looking to flatten your belly for the long term, there’s no substitute for losing a few pounds, Jensen says.
“For most everyone, when you lose total body fat, your body reduces belly fat preferentially,” he says. “Even though people lose weight differently, there is a little more lost in the abdominal region than elsewhere.”
Experts also say that doing ab exercises all day long won’t get rid of the excess belly. Although you can’t necessarily spot reduce, you can strengthen abdominal muscles with routines like Pilates and exercise ball workouts. And, stronger muscles can help your belly appear flatter.
“Toning and strengthening the abdominal muscles can help you look less fat [and] improve your appearance, muscle tone, and posture, which is also very good for your back,” Jensen says.