Matters of the midsection come up quite often in our community and we get it. The core goes through quite a transition during pregnancy and beyond. Google “how to reduce belly fat” and results suggest everything from diet tricks, expensive wraps, secret core exercises, and detox teas promising to help you trim your waistline practically overnight. Unfortunately the information available to women about belly fat leaves a lot to be desired.
Hard or soft, flat or round – all bellies are good bellies. If, when, and how you choose to address (or not address) your midsection is completely up to you. If it’s something you feel compelled to investigate further, before you swear off carbs, hammer the treadmill, and drop some serious cash on bogus products, it could be helpful to consider potential cause(s).
THERE ARE MANY REASONS WHY AN INDIVIDUAL MAY HAVE BELLY FAT AND THE CAUSES MAY SURPRISE YOU.
Reason #1: Genetics
Genetics largely determine our hair color, shoe size, height and even where we’re likely to store fat. A study conducted in the 1990s on twins was one of the first to present that general body fat, shape, and composition are strongly influenced by genetics and since then specific genetic variants have been shown to affect females’ fat storage patterns, in particular waist and hip circumference measurements. This makes sense! People’s bodies are all uniquely different. Some of us have more fat in our thighs and hips, some have thicker waists, some have fat in their arms and chests. There’s not one body that is the same as the next, and we have to accept whether we like it or not it’s our genetics determining where our fat is stored on our bodies.
What you can do about it: If you want new genetics you’ll have to find new parents. That being said, even if your parents weren’t built like Serena Williams and John Cena, you can make changes to your health and/or body composition by addressing your overall health and wellness habits. Just keep in mind that we aren’t all born with the ability to develop rippling “six packs” just as we aren’t all born to become 6 feet tall.
Reason #2: Diastasis Recti
Diastasis Recti (also known as abdominal muscle separation) is when the left and right sides of the abdominal muscles are separated. This is commonly seen in pregnant and postpartum women, but can also be found in children and adults. The separation of your abdominals is a completely normal and natural occurrence during pregnancy. Diastasis recti becomes an issue when when health and function are compromised. This could be during pregnancy or after pregnancy when the connective tissue remains stretched and lax months after delivery. Diastasis recti doesn’t actually increase abdominal fat but common complaints can include lower back pain, pelvic pain, incontinence issues, and women note they feel like they “still look pregnant” months or years after delivery.
What you can do about it: A quick self-assessment can help you determine if you have diastasis recti. If in doubt, or if you need a second opinion, please find a women’s health or pelvic floor physiotherapist to help you with this. You can search for ones in your area here: USA | Canada | Australia | New Zealand | UK .
Reason #3: Stress
Stress increases the production of cortisol. Cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone”, helps our bodies use glucose (sugar), fat, and manage stress. It naturally rises and falls throughout the day, peaking in the morning and typically dropping at night. Cortisol is designed to kick in to help us in the short-term during flight or flight situations but can also become elevated with prolonged exposure to stress. Continually elevated levels of cortisol have been linked to an increase in belly fat. If you’re a mom, it’s almost guaranteed you have stress in your life. Hello, teething babies, bake sales, and potty training.
Additionally, cortisol can ramp up hunger and cravings. Studies have concluded that experiencing physical and emotional stress increases consumption of foods high in fat, sugar, or both. Following ingestion, those same foods can actually temporarily negate stress providing a more calming state in the body. So it makes sense if you find yourself scouring the cupboards for six-month-old Halloween candy when you’re on the verge of losing your s***. There really is some truth behind “comfort foods”.
What you can do about it: How we react to stress is largely determined by genetics and previous life experiences but situations such as caring for children, intense work environments, relationships, and financial strain can contribute to elevated stress levels. Stress management is an important aspect of our health for a variety of reasons but as it pertains to belly fat, reducing stress may also help with shrink your waistline, or preventing the accumulation of belly fat. Sleep, meditation, therapy, exercise, massage, binge-watching Orange is the New Black, and bubble-baths are my top picks but the key is finding a method that works for you.
Reason #4: Poor posture and breath
As Physical Therapist and pelvic floor expert Julie Wiebe notes, posture and breath can impact the appearance of our stomach. It’s not uncommon for women to habitually “suck in” their stomachs in an effort to appear thinner. This can have adverse effects on our lower abdominals and internal pressure system–therefore changing the appearance of our bellies.
What you can do about it: Corrections to our posture and breath can be made in just a few short minutes but turning those corrections into habits takes some practice. Grab our Body After Baby program to reconnect your diaphragm, core, and pelvic floor through breath. Free bonus: permission and encouragement to not suck in ever again.
Reason #5: Body Composition
Body composition refers the percentages of fat, bone, water and muscle in human bodies. Higher amounts of fat may result in a higher waist circumference especially when combined with the genetic predisposition to store fat in your abdominal area (vs. hips, thighs, buttocks).
What you can do about it: Attempts to change body composition is typically the first place many women start when they want to reduce their waistline. Changing body composition is generally done so by creating a caloric deficit through diet and/or exercise. While changes in body composition have the potential to make a big impact, they must be accompanied by a change of day-to-day habits if you want those changes to stick.
What else you can do about it: Assuming you want to tackle changes to your body composition you’re most likely to succeed by addressing small, sustainable changes to your behavior while keeping in mind where individuals lose fat first is genetically driven. Swapping in veggies for chips and strength training a few times a week may not be as impressive as an overnight overhaul but studies have shown the fewer habits you try to change at once the more likely you are to succeed. Slow and steady wins this race.
SAVE YOUR TIME AND MONEY
The truth is restriction can lead to weight loss but unless you’re planning on spending the rest of your life without said food/drink, it’s almost guaranteed that once you reintroduce it the weight will come back. It’s a temporary solution, a band-aid at best.
Additionally, research has shown that assigning moral values to food as being “good” or “bad” (i.e. ice cream is bad) and the restriction of “bad” foods can result in the binge eating of those foods as well as an increase in preoccupation with said food. It’s like when my parents told me not to date the bad boy in school. The minute they told me I couldn’t, it’s all I wanted to do. Bottom line: food deprivation isn’t good for mental, emotional, or physical health. Ditch the restrictive diets. Work on your habits instead.
A million crunches and planks:
Proper core training does have benefits but unfortunately, the idea of spot reduction (the ability to lose fat in targeted areas through exercise) is a myth. In other words, all the crunches, sit-ups, and planks in the world won’t melt fat from your stomach unless it’s also paired with a caloric deficit. As far as your core goes, including a variety of core stability and core strength movements (read: not just crunches) into your exercise routine is a smart choice. Be sure to check out our free full body strength circuits on YouTube that can be done at home or the gym here!
Waist trainers, made popular by Kim Kardashian, claim to “tone and flatten your stomach by creating compression in your core to stimulate thermal activity, burning more calories”. Sadly, the only thing these shrink is your wallet as there is no scientific backing that these work. They may temporarily reduce your waist circumference while they’re being worn and momentarily after you remove them but inevitably your waist will return to its original state. But these aren’t just harmless garments like most shapewear. Waist trainers can actually have adverse effects. As it pertains to postpartum women, the intense compression they produce can increase intra abdominal pressure on the diaphragm and pelvic floor as well as restrict core muscles from functioning properly. Your best bet? A hard pass.
Whether at home or the spa the idea of spending 30 minutes applying luxurious lotions and wrapping yourself up in saran-like material sounds appealing. Anything for a few moments alone, right? The downside of these so-called slimming wraps are that any results are only temporary. The scale may dip for a few hours due to water loss and your skin may appear firmer thanks to various ingredients in the products, but similar to sitting in a sauna, the results are bound to last just a few hours, at most a day or two.
Detoxes and “skinny” teas run rampant on the internet but assuming your liver and kidneys are functioning properly, you don’t need a detox. Sure, medical detoxes are sometimes necessary in extreme drug, alcohol, and poisonous substance related situations and should be administered in a hospital by medically trained staff. Similarly, the effectiveness of skinny teas is also highly suspect as they often have a strong laxative effects. After reviewing various studies on the effectiveness of detox diets, The Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics concluded that, “There is very little clinical evidence to support the use of these diets.”
All of the above considered and regardless of what your belly looks like, if you find yourself preoccupied with the shape of your stomach the key to making peace with your body likely lies between your ears, not a smaller waistline. Try spending a little less time focusing on the things you don’t like and a little more time on what you love and you just might be surprised with the results.