Build Your Core With Nutrition

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For all the effort you've put into toning it, and for all the cupcakes you've given up to maintain it, your midsection should be as rock-hard as a diamond and just as much fun to show off. So why does it seem like your quest for a sexy stomach always hits a bump...right about belly-button level?

Don't give up hope, just change your thinking. Turns out, some of the old food advice you've been following for years may actually be working against you, says Alan Aragon, a nutritionist in Westlake Village, California. The latest research is full of new culinary strategies for shrinking your stomach (and dropping pounds all over). After wading through the data to answer your most common questions, Aragon presents his core counsel.

More: 5 Fun Facts About Diet and Fitness

Will eating smaller meals curb my hunger?

Contrary to what you've heard, the five-small-meals-a-day mantra doesn't work for everyone. The new thinking? You'll eat healthiest if you eat your way, meaning, if you prefer substantial meals fewer times a day, there's no reason to force yourself to do the opposite, says Aragon. But while the number of meals doesn't matter, their size does. According to Purdue University researchers, the biggest problem with our noshing behavior is that snacks have become meals, and meals have become feasts.

In the past 30 years, snack sizes have increased from 360 calories to a whopping 580! When you consider that the average woman snacks twice during each workday, you're looking at almost 500 extra calories a day. In just two weeks, these oversize bites, no matter how "healthy" they are, can contribute to an extra pound of fat. The takeaway: However many times you eat, always make sure that you're keeping an eye on your portions.

More: 10 Ways to Cut 100 Calories From Your Diet

Is counting calories the only way to guarantee a flat stomach?

What matters most for shedding belly fat boils down to calories in versus calories out. For sure, counting those suckers at every meal will help you stay consistent with a healthy eating plan, says Aragon, but it isn't necessary to lose weight. If worrying about Every. Single. Calorie. is stressing you out, put away the calculator (research shows that stress itself can cause you to stuff your face). Instead, fill your plate with whole, energy-dense foods, such as lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (or any of these 12 foods for a flat belly). Because they pack a lot of nutrition into comparatively few calories, you're able to eat more and feel full without expanding your waistline.

More: 5 Low-Calorie Ingredients to Spice Up Any Dish

How do I know which fats are OK to eat?

It's been scientifically proven: Eating fat helps you become slim, says Aragon. In fact, the Institute of Medicine recommends that fatty foods make up 20 to 35 percent of your total calories. This, of course, isn't an invitation to head over to the nearest fast-food joint. You have to include the right fats, primarily monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) like nuts, avocados, and healthy oils, and stay away from processed foods that contain trans fats, such as baked goods.