Of all the things America worships -- the luxury car, the happy family, the high-paying job -- the flat stomach is one of the hardest to achieve. We know it's possible because look at all those magnificent 2012 Olympians -- super-strong, terrifically tight and belly fat-free.
Michael Phelps! Misty May-Treanor! The adorably named Destinee Hooker! These gods and goddesses have all carved out wondrous cores of concrete, while we envious mortals at home look down at globs of belly fat and wonder: How did this happen? Can I make it go away?
You can! But it means giving up fake foods and adding delicious ones. So let's review some basic belly fat facts to educate, motivate and inspire you to go for the gold in the misunderstood sport of tummy flattening.
LOSE YOUR OMENTUM. A little knowledge is a darn good thing. Scientists talk about three kinds of fat. One kind -- called triglycerides -- runs in your bloodstream. The second is subcutaneous, right under your skin. The third -- who knew? -- is omentum fat. That's the stuff inside your belly, pushing out the waistband of your jeans, squeezing on vital organs. The omentum fat under your stomach muscles has other names, too -- love handles, visceral fat, intra-abdominal adiposity -- but you should know it for what it is: the most dangerous body fat in the world.
WHY IS BELLY FAT WORSE THAN JIGGLY THIGHS? Omentum fat has more momentum than the other kinds, which just sit there, defying you to put on your Speedo. It travels like a heat-seeking missile directly to your liver, where it gets dispersed to your arteries, and from there, you've got trouble in River City. High LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) is one of several health problems linked to omentum fat. Belly fat also constricts your lungs and pushes up on your diaphragm, making it difficult to breathe. The good news is that if you reduce your omentum, even just a little, you will see a significant improvement in your cholesterol, your blood pressure, your blood sugar and your lung function. And your jeans won't feel like a boa constrictor.
STRESS GOES TO YOUR STOMACH. Belly fat isn't just the result of eating too much of the wrong food. It also comes from ignoring the stress in our crazy-busy lives. If you do nothing to consciously relieve it -- with exercise, breathing techniques, meditation -- your cortisol levels will spike. And the stress hormone cortisol is one reason people gain weight around their midsection. Cortisol actually holds on to the fat that is stored in the belly region, even when we cut back on calories. (How did cortisol get so mean?)
WHAT WORKS? Belly fat blasting is a growth industry. Ads for special drinks, powders and electrical devices that "target the belly fat" are everywhere. Ignore them. Waste of money. Focus instead on eating real foods known to battle the bulge. Avocados, eggs, almonds, yogurt, berries, green tea, vitamin C-rich foods (oranges, red peppers), whole grains and high-fiber foods lead the lists, many of which are available online.
One of my favorites has been compiled by nutritionist Josh Bezoni, a hard-core pitchman who's on a personal mission "to remove 100 tons of belly fat from America." His book "Belly Fat Free" is packed with startling information about foods that fight belly fat -- including dark chocolate! -- and foods that add it, such as sugar, fruit juices and fake butter. But even more eye-opening is his brave and true take on "obesity additives."
Highly processed foods are the Lucky Strikes of tomorrow. Most mainstream food companies are intentionally loading their products with chemicals and additives that make us hungry, make us fat and make us addicted, Bezoni reveals. He has stacks of solid research to back up his case. The big food companies of today are the tobacco companies of yesterday; they hide the truth and deny, deny, deny. Nothing illegal but potentially lethal. "Over 350,000 people die from weight-related diseases every year!" Bezoni shouts. What will it take for you to listen and take action?
BOTTOM LINE? Stop eating processed foods and all foods and drinks with artificial sugars. Go cold turkey, but not the phony baloney kind that's concocted in factories.
COMING SOON: Exercises that help -- a little.
ENERGY EXPRESS-O! TEN THOUSAND CRUNCHES WON'T DO IT
"About 80 percent of your ability to reduce excess body fat is determined by what you eat, with the other 20 percent related to exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits such as sleep and stress reduction." -- Dr. Joseph Mercola
Marilynn Preston -- fitness expert, well-being coach, and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues -- is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country.