Burn That Belly Fat By Changing Your Diet? Not So Fast!

Burn That Belly Fat By Changing Your Diet? Not So Fast!

This article was originally published on HuffPost on May 9, 2016

‘Zap Your Belly Fat with These 6 Foods!’

Anyone with eyes in their head has seen headlines like that in the media. When I searched ‘belly fat’ to get some facts for an interview I recently did, I was stunned by the avalanche of information out there on the subject, and how many sites and products offer to cure your belly fat problem ‘with one easy step!’
The more I delved into these sites, the more I saw that they weren’t offering any actual solutions that were exclusive to targeting belly fat. And some claims I saw were just idiotic. Even sites that offered ‘evidence based’ solutions to belly fat were either quoting old, poorly done studies or were offering simple solutions to reduce body fat in general…so much for zapping only your belly fat!

Despite the claims that companies on the internet are falling all over themselves trying to make, we can all agree on one thing: belly fat — also called visceral fat — is a good predictor of health risk. Excess weight around your middle is associated with insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease among others.

We know that some things definitely increase belly fat: cortisol, a hormone that’s released in response to stress, menopause (also related to hormones), and genetic makeup — some people are simply predisposed to putting weight on around their middles.

But what about the food we eat? Can that affect belly fat like all those headlines would have us think?

Let’s have some fun. We’re going to look at some of the belly fat claims I saw out there and then take them on, one by one.

There are foods that burn belly fat
This is the number one claim I found out there — that fish, nuts, milk, tart cherries..you name it… can burn belly fat.

When I looked into the actual articles making these claims, they said absolutely nothing about actual research in terms of these foods being ‘fat burners’. None of the articles even mentioned anything about the foods ‘burning fat’; just that they helped with appetite suppression, which is different from ‘burning fat’. How misleading!

Why don’t these articles cite strong evidence (read: not mouse studies, small or short studies, or poorly done studies) that prove that certain foods burn fat? That’s because there is none! No food burns fat!

People — you heard it here first, and let this be the last time you need to hear it:


Not belly fat, not bum fat, not any fat. Even if a food increases your metabolic rate slightly — like caffeine, for example — it’s unlikely to result in perceptible weight loss. If it worked, no one would be fat! End of story.

Eating more protein helps you lose belly fat
Protein is harder for your body to metabolize than carbohydrate or fat, and your body burns more calories metabolizing it than those other 2 nutrients. Protein also helps with satiety, so increasing your ratio of protein to other macronutrients like carbohydrate may help you eat less overall, which can help you lose weight, and not only in your belly.

Does that all mean that adding more protein on top of what you’re eating already helps you lose belly fat? No. Eating too much of anything can help you GAIN belly fat, as well as fat all over your body. It’s a frequent recommendation of mine to clients that they reduce their carbohydrate in favor of protein, but nothing magical in protein will vaporize your belly fat.

Avoid high fructose corn syrup, because it causes belly fat
This one is a biggie. For a while there, it looked as though HFCS was the culprit in building belly fat. The media is still sort of clinging on to HFCS as a scapegoat, but the truth is that HFCS has not been shown conclusively to cause an increase in belly fat in particular. So you read it here first: HFCS does not cause belly fat ANY MORE than any other sugar. Yes, it’s metabolized differently than table sugar and is therefore thought to cause fatty liver and other diseases. But that doesn’t mean that it’s solely responsible for belly fat. If you’re consuming a ton of sugar sweetened beverages and other crap, you can’t blame the HFCS for your abdominal obesity. You can, however, blame the fact that you’re overfeeding yourself with junk.

Don’t write me hate mail and say that I’m promoting sugar consumption, because some of you will, and I’m not. I’m merely drawing the (educated) conclusion that HFCS doesn’t cause belly fat any more than sucrose (table sugar). It and other sugars do cause obesity and other health issues when they’re consumed in excess.

But in terms of belly fat? Maybe not. You can read the research yourself here and hereand here in particular, where in the ‘concluding remarks’ you can see the difference between ‘correlation’ and ‘causation’. HFCS is implicated in a lot of ills, but we need to look critically at possible other causes of these health issues as well (like an overall excess of sugar in general).

The takeaway? No one is disputing that excess sugar, HFCS, or otherwise, isn’t healthy for you. So eat less of it and concentrate more on whole, fresh foods.

Eating before bed causes your body to not burn belly fat
Wow, seriously? The article I found this claim in (remarkably, on a well-read, respected site) states that even ‘something healthy-ish’ can throw off your fat-burning potential.

Do not go to bed hungry because you think you’re going to mess up ‘fat-burning’ while you sleep. As long as you’re not overdoing it, there’s no physiological reason why you can’t have a snack before sleeping. The lack of sleep has been associated with obesity in general, but eating a snack before bed has not.

One thing these claims all have in common? None of them work for targeting belly fat…because you can’t target belly fat!

In articles saying that people lost belly fat doing or eating something, it’s very likely that these people also lost fat from other areas as well. You can’t target weight loss, but arm-fat lost doesn’t sell magazines. Apparently, belly fat ‘miracles’ do.

I hate to go all ‘dietitian’ on you, but the message is clear: eat whole foods. Don’t eat so much crap, including all sorts of sugary foods and beverages. Don’t overfeed yourself. And get your sleep.