Some of the fittest people I know don’t have abs.
I know triathletes, bicycle racers, marathoners, weightlifters, CrossFitters. I know nutritionists and dietitians and health food fanatics. And I know a lot of just plain, regular people who eat healthy, exercise, and do all of the things it takes to have a flat, lean belly and real ripples that show. But still, no abs.
That’s what we’re here to answer.
Because new research shows that the kinds of fat we’re eating—the very fats that are being recommended by health experts—are what’s causing us to hold on to our belly fat. Here’s the program that will help you shed it for good.
The truth about your abs
The American Heart Association wants you to do it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants you to do it. The Department of Health and Human Services wants you to do it. And big agriculture companies like Monsanto really want you to do it.
My advice: Don’t do it.
Don’t swap out saturated fats for polyunsaturated fats.
Cutting down on saturated fats has been the health industry’s mantra since long before Dick Cheney and pre-vegan Bill Clinton battled it out for the bipartisan title of “Most Cholesterol-Addled American”.
And it remains the go-to plan today: When the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was drafting the most recent set of food recommendations, it concluded that reducing saturated fat—found in beef, butter, and egg yolks—could lower the risk of heart disease if it’s replaced with a type of “good fat” known as polyunsaturated fat, found in vegetable oils such as soybean and corn oil, and fatty fish like salmon and trout. But putting salmon and soybean oil in the same category because they both have polyunsaturated fats is like putting Brad Pitt and Billy Bob Thornton in the same category because they’ve both been married to Angelina Jolie. One of those characters is real pretty. And the other one’s real creepy.
Saturated or unsaturated, every type of oil is different. In fact, not only are some polyunsaturated fats really bad for your belly, but some saturated fats can actually help you see your abs. Oh, and guess what: You should eat more of certain trans fats as well. (I know: Your head just snapped back like you walked into a kick from Holly Holm.) Trans fats—at least in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils—are being banned at last by the FDA after years of near-absolute proof that they were a major player in heart disease. It’s well-known as the scourge of the modern diet. But the reality is that some trans fat can help you improve your health and reveal your abs.
If everything I’m saying here sounds heretical, then it’s time to step away from the hard-and-fast government guidelines and take a long look at your own belly, which is probably a lot less hard and fast than you’d like it to be. Because you’re about to learn some shocking new information about the role of dietary fat and belly fat.
And it’s going to change the way you eat forever.
Become an omega man
Polyunsaturated fat is the stuff that’s supposed to lead us to the promised land of a lean, flat belly and a strong, healthy heart. It lands on your plate in any number of shapes and sizes. It can come drizzled over your salad, baked into your muffin, spread on your toast, sizzling on a skillet, or writhing on your fishing pole. It can come from fruits, seeds, nuts, fish, even meat and poultry.
In fact, “polyunsaturated fat” is just a catchphrase that refers to one of at least 18 different kinds of fatty acids, some of which are good for your abs and some of which are very, very bad. Polyunsaturated fats include the famous omega-3 fatty acids. You’ve heard plenty about these. They come from fatty, cold-water fish, algae, and certain plant foods like walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and, oddly, kiwi. And they’ve been proven to aid in cholesterol reduction, arthritis, asthma, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, and even depression. But best of all, omega-3s fight belly fat: They reduce inflammation, control hunger, turn off your fat genes, control blood sugar, and actually turbocharge your fitness.
So, at first glance, it makes sense that we should try to maximize our intake of polyunsaturated fats. But here’s where it also makes sense to take a deeper look.
The second kind of polyunsaturated fats you’ve probably heard about are omega-6 fatty acids, which are less Brad and more Billy Bob. Sometimes they’re good, but more often they play the complicated bad guy. Unfortunately, 85–90% of the omega-6 fatty acids in our diet come from one type, called linoleic acid (LA). We get it primarily from vegetable oils—soybean oil, safflower oil, and corn oil. In a review in the journal Nutrition, researchers reported that linoleic acid has been shown to be adipogenic, meaning that it promotes fat storage in our bodies. And yet that’s what all the good doctors and well-meaning government leaders want us to eat more of. Linoleic acid is like a drug kingpin mastermind: While all the bit players get convicted by the nutrition police, LA stays above the fray, orchestrating the havoc. In fact, LA messes with our abs in three ways: It triggers automatic fat storage (when you eat a high omega-6 diet, your fat cells fill with higher levels of fatty acids than when you eat a diet with the same number of calories but with a better balance of oils), it screws up our hunger hormones, and it gives us the munchies. When consumed in excess, vegetable oils contribute to overproduction of brain-controlling lipids called endocannabinoids, which signal hunger to the brain. Like THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, endocannabinoids activate your neural pleasure sensors, sending us in search of food. (Yes, your brain is literally stoned on polyunsaturated oil.)
And we already eat way too much of it: An analysis by researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that while a healthy balance of omega- 6s to omega-3s is somewhere between 2:1 and 4:1, the typical American diet tends to contain 14 to 25 times more omega-6s than omega-3s.
But if they’re so bad for us, why does the government want us to eat more?
Because it’s good business.
Solve the oil crisis
Like climate change and oil spills, there’s another serious threat to our health and well-being, and it’s one you’d never suspect: the humble soybean.
Soybeans are easy to grow, easy to process, and versatile: There’s a lot of soy floating around, hence its status as a convenient oil source. In fact, the U.S. government actually promotes the planting of soy through Public Law 480, also known as the Food for Peace Act, which decreases the economic risk for U.S. soybean farmers and processors, and has proven to be an incredibly effective policy. In a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that between the years 1909 and 1999, our per capita consumption of soybean oil increased by more than 1,000%. While soy oil accounted for just 0.0006% of calories at the beginning of the 20th century, today it’s the fourth-largest contributor of food calories—slightly more than 7% of our calories come from soybean oil. Most of the vegetable oil and margarine on grocery store shelves and in restaurants is actually made from soy, and almost every baked or fried food you eat is jam-packed with it.
And while LA comes from corn, safflower, and sunflower oil as well as soybean oil, in soy it’s part of a uniquely insidious cocktail of terrible stuff, including several naturally occurring chemicals—like genistein and daidzein—that function as “estrogenics,” meaning they mimic the effects of estrogen and counterattack testosterone. So if you’re looking for a fall guy for your nagging weight issues, then look no further than the soybean. There’s even evidence that a diet high in soybean oil causes more obesity and diabetes than a diet high in sugar.
In a study by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, mice were fed a series of four diets that contained about 40% fat, similar to what Americans currently consume. In one diet the researchers used coconut oil (a saturated fat); in the second they replaced half of the coconut oil with soybean oil—the main ingredient in “vegetable oil”. Compared with the mice on the high-coconut-oil diet, mice on the high-soybean-oil diet showed increased weight gain, larger fat deposits, liver damage, diabetes, and insulin resistance. When researchers added fructose to the diets, they saw the same issues, but at a lower level. Mice on the soybean oil diet gained almost 25% more weight than those on the coconut oil diet, and 9% more than those on the sugar-enhanced diet. To put that in perspective: Soybean oil is two times as fattening as sugar.
The reality is that eating too much LA, especially LA derived from soy, is the primary reason you can’t find your abs. And while trying to eat more fish, or adding flaxseed to your smoothie, or taking a fish-oil supplement is all well and good, our diets are so out of whack that these strategies alone don’t cut it.
A 2010 report in Nutrition in Clinical Practice found that the more omega-6 fatty acids you consume, the more you need to increase omega-3s to overcome inflammatory markers. In the study, a diet was designed to reduce the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in subjects’ diets by increasing omega-3s and decreasing LA by 1) replacing vegetable oils with olive oil and rapeseed oil, and 2) replacing meat with fish three days a week. The experiment resulted in a significant reduction in “tumor necrosis factor”—a belly-fat compound that’s just as dangerous as it sounds, as it’s been linked to inflammatory issues like Crohn’s disease, psoriasis, and arthritis.
Get the right kind of protein
If the fact that you’re eating so much soy has you freaked out, then consider what else is eating all that soy: all our farm animals. Chickens that once fed on natural grasses and bugs today eat feed made from soy and corn. As a result, the average chicken breast today has only 63% as much protein—and 223% as much fat—as the chicken breast our parents ate 40 years ago. And thanks to the birds’ diet, much of that stored fat is omega-6 fatty acids. Assuming you’re not sitting around doing a lot of soybean oil shooters, guess what the No.1 source of omega-6 in the American diet is? Baked goods? Potato chips? French fries? Nope. Chicken.
Nearly 10% of the LA we consume comes from chicken. That’s partly due to the omega-6 content of the chicken itself, and partly due to the way it’s prepared—we like our chicken breaded and fried, and both processes layer even more LA on top of the chicken’s already plumped-up meat. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the top sources of omega-6 fatty acids in the American diet are chicken and chicken-mixed dishes (9.5%), grain-based desserts (7.4%), salad dressing (7.3%), potato/corn/other chips (6.9%), nuts/seeds/mixes (6.4%), and pizza (5.3%). Of course, all this raises the important question: So, what the hell should I eat?
The answer’s simple. Stop making “leaner” choices, like choosing margarine over butter or chicken burgers over beef, and start eating what your body craves.
When you hear “cut down on saturated fat,” consider it advice that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The truth is that some types of saturated fat are actually good for you.
Also, saturated fats always come with a tag-along buddy: protein. That’s good for several reasons. First, protein is the building block of muscle, and muscle hates fat. Muscle burns energy on a regular basis, so it steals energy away from fat cells—specifically belly-fat cells—to sustain itself. The belly fat covering your abs just hates the fact that your muscles store energy (glycogen) that could otherwise be used to make more fat cells. Second, the very act of eating protein actually burns calories: About 25% of the calories you eat in the form of protein are burned up just digesting the protein itself. (Carbs and fat burn up no more than 10–15% of their calories.) And third, protein keeps you fuller longer, in part because that intense digestive process means your body perceives you as being satiated.
In a 2013 study in the journal Appetite, women were fed low-, medium-, or high-protein afternoon snacks. Those who ate the most protein had the least hunger afterward, and waited longer before they chose to eat again than those who ate lower-protein snacks. That’s in part the result of our hormonal response to protein: High-protein meals are thought to increase satiety by suppressing the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin.
And that’s why a diet high in the right fats is so effective. Instead of going low-fat, you enjoy fat—even saturated fat—in a way that keeps your hunger hormones quiet and your taste buds dancing for joy.
Because, let’s face it: You can eat indulgent, even fatty foods and still have a lean, flat belly. For example, one client of mine named John lives in New York City, and is always eating out. “I thought that if I wanted to lose weight and get healthy I’d have to give up going out forever,” he complained. But now he knows that he can keep ringing up his Seamless account and hitting up his favorite spots—he just needs to know what to look for on the menu. “I started asking what types of oils things were cooked in,” he says. “Now I can still enjoy the food I want. Without changing up my exercise routine, I’ve seen a huge difference—I’m so much less bloated in the morning!”