Here's the thing: having fat around your midsection is completely normal and incredibly common—it's uncommon to have minimal body fat and shredded abs. The issue, however, lies in the type of fat you have: subcutaneous fat, or fat that you can grab and pinch with your fingers, is less of a threat to your health than visceral fat, which lies deep within the abdominal cavity. Visceral fat can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol, among other serious health concerns.
Thankfully, there are steps you can take to reduce these risks (that don't include participating in fad diets and unhealthy negative talk). Exercise is very important for a sustainable healthy lifestyle and a reduction in fat (aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day, like taking a walk), but the foods you eat make a big difference too. With the help of Divya L. Selvakumar, RD, we've assembled a list of 12 foods to avoid if you're specifically aiming to shed belly fat.
Meet the Expert
Divya L. Selvakumar is a registered dietitian, nutrition specialist, and founder of Divine Diets.
Keep scrolling to learn which foods to avoid to help with bloating and belly fat.
Cheese is dense in calories and saturated fat. This isn't to say that all dairy is completely off limits (we don't know what we'd do if we had to part ways with mint chocolate chip ice cream)—healthy options like skim milk still supply the body with protein and calcium. Still, if you're aiming for a slimmer midsection, try doing as the French do, and stay away from processed, melted cheese, and eat small portions of additive-free cheeses instead.
Soda is sweetened with artificial sugars and high-fructose corn syrup, both of which can increase intra-abdominal fat and serve up some unnecessary calories: "Generally, sodas should be avoided completely to reduce bloating and abdominal fat," says Selvakumar. "Excess sugar that is leftover will be converted to fat and eventually stored in the adipose tissue."
And while diet soda may reduce the calories, the artificially sweet taste triggers your body to produce insulin which then causes higher blood sugar and a larger waist circumference, even if you think you're choosing the "healthier" option. Bottom line: Steer clear of the sugary drink completely.
Swap sugary drinks out for fruit-infused waters
Meat can be a healthy part of your diet—after all, it supplies your body with a heavy dose of protein, which, as we all know, helps maintain energy levels and new muscle cell production. That said, processed meats that are high in saturated fat (yes, that includes bacon) aren't your healthy-lifestyle friends. "If you're looking to get a flat stomach and lose weight, it is best to avoid consuming processed meats (like ried meat, beef jerky, sausages, hot dogs, salami, cured bacon, and canned meats)," notes Selvakumar. "Very often, processed meats contain a high amount of salt, fat, and cholesterol, which can increase the rate of heart disease, too." Instead, look to plant proteins or lean meats like grilled chicken and fish to fulfill your daily quota.
We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that weekly happy hour could be doing more harm than good. "Alcohol contains seven calories per gram, which is just slightly less than fat (which contains nine calories per gram)," says Selvakumar. "No matter what type of alcoholic drink it is, alcohol will not help a person who is looking to obtain a flat stomach, let alone try to lose weight." And while this does include wine, it's important to note that some alcoholic beverages have more calories than others (for example, beer has more calories than wine). You don't have to stay away from alcohol completely—just stay away from having more than one drink per sitting.
Low-Fat or Fat-Free Salad Dressing
You've probably heard the good news that following a Mediterranean diet (one that's high in lean, antioxidant-packed foods like olive oil, leafy greens, and fish) can do wonders for your mind and body. But, Selvakumar warns that low-fat or fat-free salad dressing can be actually quite unhealthy if they contain genetically modified oils that have been heated, pressed, or refined. Plus, the addition of high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, and preservatives may also contribute to the bulge. Instead, opt for a homemade salad dressing where you're in charge of all the ingredients that go in it. Our favorite blend for a tasty, healthier alternative? Olive oil with lemon and red wine vinegar.
Fruit Juice with Added Sugar
Just like soda, most store-bought fruit juices are full of additives, sweeteners, and, yes, high-fructose corn syrup. The same goes for store-bought smoothies. According to Selvakumar, the adipose tissue (where extra sugar gets converted to fat), has an unlimited storage capacity, which makes obtaining a flat stomach difficult to achieve if you're drinking things like fruit juice with added sugar. Instead of your daily juice run, try making your own at home. While that may mean more cleanup for you, you'll be able to taste a difference in the freshness and your waistline will benefit.
Refined carbohydrates like bread are another food that should be limited in a healthy diet. One study found that diets rich in "dense acellular carbohydrates" promote inflammation and weight gain. Try replacing your go-to morning bagel with something healthier—think Ezekiel bread, flaxseed bread, rye bread, oat bread, or whole wheat bread. You might even notice a difference in your energy levels throughout the day, and you'll feel full longer.
Replace refined bread with fiber soluble foods like avocados, legumes, oats, and flaxseeds. Like bread, they'll make you feel full, but they help to slow down the manner in which food passes through the digestive tract.
It's often said that the most important meal of the day is breakfast, but if you're eating multiple bowls of cereal in the a.m., the GI system won't have time to effectively digest the food—not to mention high sugar content and processed white flour can lead to weight gain. Look for whole grain, low-sugar, high-fiber cereals instead (the high fiber will help you feel fuller, longer, and get things moving in your digestive system). As far as which milk to pair it with, Selvakumar recommends consuming either low-fat or skim milk for efficient weight loss, or plant-based milk with cereals (think almond, oat, and soy).
Although salt won't actually contribute to the addition of belly fat, excess amounts are a common cause for bloat and can make you feel like you packed on a few extra pounds overnight. "The healthiest salt to use is unrefined (think sea salt and Himalayan pink salt)," advises Selvakumar. "However, you must also take into consideration how much salt you're adding while cooking." You can minimize the amount of salt you use in your meals by replacing it with fresh herbs and spices instead (we're big fans of ginger, basil, and turmeric). And if you find yourself reaching for a salty treat, be sure to follow up with an extra dose of water to try to avoid bloat and dehydration.
Selvakumar notes that processed baked goods often have an excess amount of sugar and fat, which won't help on your quest to a flatter stomach. To satisfy a sweet tooth, make sure to read up on your product's ingredient label and opt for low-sugar desserts like vegan cakes or cupcakes. Or, pop a few grapes into the freezer for a refreshingly sweet "dessert."
Although certain meals and shakes packaged as diet-friendly may be low in calories and fat, they're usually extremely high in sodium and preservatives. Don't be fooled by low-calorie diet bars either—you'll be hungry again in no time thanks to their lack of nutrition. "Packaged meals, bars, and shakes can contain substances and preservatives that could irritate the lining of the stomach or cause some other discomfort," says Selvakumar. "Fruits, cucumbers, and nuts are more appropriate snacks." Add nutrient-dense foods to your diet to help you feel full longer.
Whether it be a bag of chips or crispy chicken, we'll be the first to admit that fried foods have this magical ability to satisfy a craving. But, as we figured, Selvakumar isn't a fan of fried foods for a defined tummy. "Fried foods will contain more oil, fat, and cholesterol and will contradict the goal towards attaining a flatter stomach," she says. Try oven-baking foods you'd otherwise fry—you'll be using less oil and won't have to sacrifice the crunch.
Harvard Health Publishing. Abdominal fat and what to do about it. Updated June 25, 2019.
Mathur K, Agrawal RK, Nagpure S, Deshpande D. Effect of artificial sweeteners on insulin resistance among type-2 diabetes mellitus patients. J Family Med Prim Care. 2020;9(1):69-71. doi:10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_329_19
Spreadbury I. Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2012;5:175-189. doi:10.2147/DMSO.S33473
Cleveland Clinic. 11 best high-fiber foods. Updated February 17, 2020.
Cleveland Clinic. Feel bloated? 5 odd reasons for your stomach pain. Updated June 2, 2016.