Take a quick scroll through your social media feed, and it’s all flat bellies and cut obliques these days. Ab exercises are trending, up by 2,000 percent according to Pinterest, and on Instagram, it’s hard to stop staring at Australian fitness trainers and beach babes. But how much of that is exercise? What about diet, or just being born with the genes of a bikini model to begin with? “A number of factors contribute to a sleek midsection, starting with straight-up genetics and body type,” says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, MS, RDN, CEDRD, CSSD, and author of The Belly Fat Fix. “To some degree, you can’t help that! Not everyone is predisposed to see a six pack. But just because you carry some visible weight, that doesn’t mean you’re not fit or healthy!”

So slip into that swimsuit, and get ready to dive into the facts. It’s time to bust some belly fat myths.

The Facts on Belly Fat

More important than what you see in the mirror, belly fat can carry big implications for your health. There are two kinds of fat. First, there’s subcutaneous fat, which sits right under the skin—it might not be gorgeous, but it’s relatively harmless. Then, there’s visceral fat, which packs in around your organs, and comes with real health concerns. Visceral fat can increase your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. You may be at higher risk if your waist is more than 40 inches (102 centimeters) for men or 35 inches (88 centimeters) for women, especially if you’re apple shaped.

Diet Tips to Slim Down

The thing is, you can do crunches until the manatees come home, but if muscles are tucked under a layer of fat, you might not see much of a difference. That’s why fitness trainers love to say, “Abs get strong in the gym, and cut in the kitchen.” You have to change what you eat, if you want to see results. Cohn clarifies, “If you only have 5 pounds to lose, you might only need to build a little lean muscle. But if you have 20 pounds to lose, that’s a big difference, and that’s going to be 80 percent diet.”

Cohn recommends ditching processed and packaged foods, and focusing on whole foods that fuel your metabolism. Studies confirm that more protein and fiber can help reduce belly fat. Aim to eat the right amount of protein throughout the day, with low-fat dairy, eggs, legumes, fish, and lean meat, and fill the rest of your plate with lots of veggies and fresh fruit. Does that mean you have to cut carbs out of your life completely? Absolutely not. Fresh fruit and whole grains are excellent sources of fiber, so they’re definitely on the menu. But it’s smart to avoid refined carbs, sugar, and alcohol, which are inflammatory foods that can make you appear puffy.

Exercise Tips to Tone Up

That said, you still want to hit the gym. A study from Harvard researchers confirmed that a combo of cardio and weight training is the most effective for trimming your waistline. “Exercise is amazing for changing body composition,” Cohn says. “But cardio alone is not where it’s at! People want to lose weight, and they think all they need is cardio. But you’ve got to add resistance training, to build muscle mass and keep burning calories over 24 hours at a time. So get your diet right, then add cardio and strength training, and you’ll enhance that after-burn effect.” Fire it up with high-intensity interval training and full-body moves like planks, to blast the most belly fat.

Keeping It Real with Your Goals

As with most things in life, there isn’t one magical cure to melt away belly fat. It’s a factor of genetics and body shape, diet and exercise. Sleep and stress also contribute, as do middle age and menopause. But you don’t have to fear or dread the spread. “As you get older, your goals might shift, but they’re no less important!” says Cohn. “Let’s get real. Maybe instead of wanting to look good in a bikini, you can focus on living a long and healthy life.” So forget the comparisons, and focus on your overall health and wellness. Because you know what? If you start increasing your step goal, hitting sprints, holding planks, balancing protein with colorful fruits and veggies, and saying no thanks to sugar and alcohol—you’re going to feel awesome, anyway. Whittling down your waistline is just one bonus.