A recent search on Amazon.com of books relating to the term “belly fat” yielded over 5,000 results. With all that information out there, why is a flat stomach so elusive to so many of us?
Unfortunately, the misinformation so rampant in our society often leads us to believe there’s something inherently wrong with us if our stomach doesn’t look like the artificially photo-shopped images on Instagram or magazine covers. If we believe there’s something wrong with us, then there’ll surely be a line of people out there ready to sell us a magic cure – whether that’s a new diet, a mystery supplement, a bizarre exercise device, or a 10-minute miracle workout.
Looks aren’t everything
Of course, carrying a lot of excess fat in the abdominal area can be a precursor to certain serious health issues, like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So committing to reducing this fat in order to improve your health is positive and life-affirming.
But keep in mind that the way your body looks doesn’t necessarily reflect your overall health or wellbeing. Someone with a flat stomach or “washboard abs” isn’t necessarily healthier. It’s the same with scale weight. Someone with good muscle tone and a healthy level of body fat may actually weigh more than someone who appears heavier due to a higher proportion of body fat.
For most of us, proven weight loss methods will reduce excess belly fat over time. In addition to how much you eat, the amount of calories you regularly burn through exercise and everyday movement is the other key factor in reducing extra belly fat. Essentially, if you eat too much and move too little, you’re probably going to develop excess weight — which includes belly fat.
Spot reducing is a myth
If all other things remain equal, doing a thousand crunches a day will not give you a flat stomach. Instead, you’ll develop strong muscles that excess fat will just accumulate around, making your belly look even bigger. What’s more important is to build a strong “core” – essentially, the muscles of your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, and all the abdominals. Exercises that work the entire core build strength, mobility, and burn calories too.
Other factors at play
But what if you’re eating a healthy diet and maintaining a regular exercise routine, but can’t seem to lose the “pooch”? There may be some not-so-secret forces at work. Let’s explore those next.
Your genes may affect how your body distributes and stores visceral fat—the type of fat deep in your abdomen and around your intestines. According to bariatric surgeon Michael Nusbaum, MD, founder of Nusbaum Medical Centers in New Jersey, “There are people who, no matter what, are going to basically be prone to having the same belly as their mom or dad.” Bummer.
Food allergies or sensitivities
These food issues may also lead to excess belly fat and bloating. Not all food allergies result in hives or breakouts; some trigger things like inflammation and abdominal distention, meaning expansion of the stomach and waist, which makes the belly less flat. Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are two other causes of gut problems that can lead to excess abdominal inflammation.
A word about “gluten free” foods…
Individuals with Celiac disease or extreme gluten sensitivity can and should eat gluten-free foods to prevent unpleasant and painful gut symptoms. But if you don’t have either of these conditions, and choose gluten-free options because you think they’re “healthier” —think again. Because alternative grains are more bitter than their gluten-containing counterparts, gluten free foods often contain high levels of added sugar. Manufacturers may list these added sugars under a variety of alternative forms and names. Unfortunately, many gluten-free foods are higher in total sugars and high glycemic-carbs than their gluten-containing counterparts. Bottom line: if you don’t need to eat gluten free, check the labels on these products and compare them to their gluten-containing counterparts before assuming the gluten-free one is healthier.
Your gut microbiome
If your gut microbiome is off-balance, you’ll end up with gas, bloating, and a not-so-flat stomach. Research is ongoing into how gut health specifically affects fat storage. Gut bacteria may also impact how your body digests different foods and nutrients, as well as influence whether you feel hungry or full, both of which can affect your weight.
Women often gain weight during menopause, especially around the abdomen, and changes in hormone levels are to blame. After menopause, fat tissue produces estrogen, and estrogen causes fat storage – a vicious circle. Also, when a woman stops ovulating, she stops producing progesterone, which helps burn fat for energy.
A number of medications impact metabolism and fat storage. These include anti-depressants, steroids, and insulin.
The bottom line
While genetics, hormones and other factors play a role in body shape and belly circumference, most of us can rely on the staples of diet and exercise to achieve our flat[ter] stomach goals. It won’t be easy, but it’s a safe bet that a consistent and sustained routine will get you there eventually. Better yet, focus less on how you look, and more on how a healthy lifestyle makes you feel.