Let's face it. Sometimes, it feels like no matter what you do, how regimented your workouts are, or how detailed your food journal is, your problem area won't budge. For many, that problem area is the midsection. Between bloating and too-tight pants come noon, battling the bulge can be more than just a beachwear struggle—it can be the cause of frustration all year-round. "Bloating is the state that is caused by the expansion of the stomach, which can result due to excessive gas or fluid," explains registered dietitian Divya Selvakumar. "A number of different factors can make it difficult to lose belly fat, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol consumption, genetics, and smoking."
Thankfully, there are things you can do beyond taking part in a three-day flat stomach crash course (which, let's be real, are often filled with empty promises and temporary results). True, a generally healthy lifestyle that includes consistent exercise is important to losing weight, but your diet also plays a role. With the help of Selvakumar, we've assembled a list of 12 foods to avoid if you're specifically aiming to shed belly fat. (Heads up: You may not like what you hear).
Meet the Expert
Divya L. Selvakumar is a registered dietician, nutrition specialist, and founder of Divine Diets.
Keep scrolling to learn which foods to avoid to lose belly fat along with how to get a flat stomach.
If you're lactose intolerant, chances are you've experienced the gas or bloating that comes along with chowing down on a cheese board. "This is due to the fact that the lactase enzyme is missing, and lactose intolerant people cannot break down dairy products efficiently," explains Selvakumar. But even if you're not sensitive to dairy, cheese is dense in calories and saturated fat, and isn't considered a "flat stomach food." 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 supply the body with protein and calcium. Still, if you're aiming for a slimmer midsection, do as the French do, and stay away from processed, melted cheese, and eat small portions of additive-free fromage instead.
We know, we know. There's no hamburger without a side of a bubbly soft drink. But 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, it doesn't necessarily mean that the sugar content will be lower. Bottom line: Steer clear of the sugary drink completely.
Swap sugary drinks out for fruit-infused waters, which help boost the immune system, aid digestion, and remove toxins.
Meat can be a healthy part of your diet—after all, it supplies your body with a heavy dose of protein for maintained 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 can 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 and this could lead to bloating. Selvakumar recommends eating 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 avoid bloat and dehydration.
Fact: Anything processed can cause bloating. 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 natural 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 foods rich in vitamins and minerals to your diet—they'll help keep you 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.