What’s really widening your waist

These seven stealthy fat traps are probably not even on your radar – but they should be. Dodge them to finally lose the extra flab.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

These seven stealthy fat traps are probably not even on your radar – but they should be. Dodge them to finally lose the extra flab.

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You can work out like a champ, eat virtuously and get sound sleep but still stay thick around the middle. Blame some newly discovered triggers that undermine your slim-down efforts by making you pack on the belly flab. Take note and trim down.

Living on a busy street
Regular exposure to traffic noise makes you 29 percent more likely to have a bigger waistline, according to findings in Occupational & Environmental Medicine. (That risk escalates further if you’re constantly hearing planes, trains and automobiles.) Other research found that such noise may spike your cortisol, a hormone associated with ab fat. Three suggestions for you: Drown out the noise by playing soothing music (studies revealed that such tunes lower cortisol levels), muffle the clamour with a background-noise machine, or pop in noise-canceling earbuds when you need to focus.

Your diet soft drink habit
Ironically, people who sip the no-cal stuff in an effort to cut calories are actually more likely to gain belly fat. Those who averaged one and a half cans a day of diet soft drinks packed 8cm onto their waistlines over the course of nine and a half years, while those who consumed regular soft drinks gained less than 2cm, a recent study at the University of Texas Health Science Center found. One reason is that artificial sweeteners prevent the brain from registering satiety, thus increasing cravings for sweets, so you end up eating more, says study author Helen Hazuda. If you can’t give up the bubbles, switch to naturally flavoured calorie-free seltzers, which are made without any sweeteners (snapping open the can and sipping the carbonated drink can mimic the diet soft drink experience). Or for your caffeine fix, go for unsweetened coffee or tea, Helen suggests.

Mental multitasking
Brown University researchers in the US found that people who were able to focus their thoughts on the present carried around half a kilo less of belly fat (on average) than those who weren’t as mindful. The scientists speculate that because mindful people are able to view their feelings more objectively, they have greater power to overcome urges – for example, resisting a second drink at happy hour in favour of pushing it in a morning spinning class. Cultivate your focus by meditating, practising yoga or engaging in an endurance exercise, such as going for a long run or bike ride, which encourages you to constantly monitor your pace, the way your body is moving, and how you’re feeling, says study author Eric Loucks.

Skimping on calcium
Fifty-seven percent of women are falling short on the recommended daily allowance of calcium, and it may be showing in their waist measurements. Dairy, which is rich in calcium, can help flatten your belly, a study published in the journal Nutrients found. When subjects ate three daily servings of milk-based products for 12 weeks, they lost around 1kg more belly fat than those who consumed less of the same stuff . That’s because foods loaded with calcium better suppress a type of hormone that promotes fat storage, the researchers speculate. Aim to eat three servings a day of high-calcium foods like milk, yogurt, cheese, broccoli, kale and tofu.

Your commute
The longer you travel to your job, the wider your waistline, according to a study of almost 4,300 workers conducted at Washington University. The top reason? A longer trip means less time to work out. You may not be able to change how you get to the office, but you can build activity into your commute by parking a kilometre or two from your workplace or train stop and walking, biking or running the rest of the way. Or join a gym that’s on your route, and keep clothes and sneakers in the car so you can pop in on your way home, suggests sport psychologist Amanda Visek.

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Tossing and turning
Tons of studies have shown that sleep deprivation can increase cortisol levels. But a new German review found that the quality of your sleep matters too, and that people who don’t sleep soundly have more fat. “Waking up in the middle of the night as a result of things like snoring, nightmares, restlessness or a baby crying happens commonly; actually, we’re wired to naturally wake up a few times,” says Dr Jose Colon, the author of The Sleep Diet. “But if you wake up and immediately start panicking about falling back asleep, that can raise cortisol levels.” Dr Colon suggests turning your alarm clock over so you don’t fixate on the time. Sometimes circumstances prevent you from getting seven to eight consecutive hours of sleep. Sleeping in blocks of three or four hours, however, is still restorative.

Watching food TV
OK, so it’s no surprise that young women who watch more than three hours of TV a day have significantly more belly fat than those who watch an hour or less a day – lying on the couch with your hand in a bag of pretzels isn’t exactly a recipe for weight loss. Researchers found that tuning in to cooking programmes also boosts your risk of gaining weight. People who watch food TV and cook the featured dishes weigh around 4.5kg more than those who find recipes elsewhere. “Cooking shows often portray unhealthy recipes and make viewers think it’s the norm to eat this way,” says the study’s lead researcher, Lizzy Pope, the director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at the University of Vermont in the US. Lizzy recommends culling recipes from cookbooks, magazines (try the healthy eats in this one), and family and friends, since these sources were not associated with weight gain.