There are quite a few visible signs that tell us someone is “healthy.” Although they are not foolproof and can be faked (makeup, clothing, anabolic steroids), they are real signs that we evolved to read and judge. Over thousands of years, it became evolutionarily advantageous to be able to glance at someone and be able to discern if they were healthy and virile or, to put it bluntly, “worth mating with.” These visible signs include healthy clear skin, appropriate body fat levels (too much or too little aren’t desirable), the appearance of muscular strength and performance, hip to waist ratio in women and shoulder to waist ratio in men, voice tonality, hair, nails and much more. Alone these signs don’t mean a whole lot (unless they are extreme), but combined they tell us if a person has good genes and if they are healthy enough to mate with. However, there is one sign that alone sends us a louder signal of poor health than most of the other visible signs. A round, distended and overfat belly.
When we see someone with a big belly that is not proportional to the rest of their body, we instinctively know that something with their health is not so good. This instinctual feeling is rooted in some truth. Science shows us that men and women store more body fat in their belly region when their hormones are off. Studies have also demonstrated that poor stress management, poor sleeping patterns and insulin insensitivity can also cause excessive belly fat accumulation. To make matters worse, belly fat itself (especially visceral belly fat around the organs) is usually more “unhealthy” than other types of body fat. It’s no wonder that the number one reason why people diet or exercise is to reduce belly fat or to improve the appearance of their midsection.
The approach to getting a better looking and leaner midsection is very similar to the approach you would take to get leaner overall, but there are some factors that are a bit different. Belly distention can result from gut inflammation. A lower belly “pooch” can come from weak supporting core muscles. All in all, if your main fitness goal is to tighten up your midsection or flatten your tummy, there is a specialized approach that you can take that will produce faster and more consistent results.
Let’s start with the biggest factor that is impacting how your midsection looks. Nutrition. If you are consuming more calories than you are burning you will gain weight, and if you eat less calories than you are burning you will lose weight. Although, WHAT you eat CAN make this process easier or harder to adhere to and influence your overall health, you can NOT get around the fact that you MUST eat less calories than you consume to lose fat. It’s literally a law of physics and you can’t get around it. Now that I have made my point, it’s important to understand that there are things you can do to make eating the appropriate calories for your goal and your overall health MUCH easier.
Make sure you eat adequate protein. Studies have shown that protein controls appetite better than the other macronutrients (fats and carbs) and it leads to more muscle growth (with proper resistance training) which can lead to a faster metabolism. A faster metabolism and a smaller appetite will both greatly increase the odds you will be able to stay consistent with your goal of fat loss. The optimal amount of protein intake for both fat loss and muscle gain is about .05 to 1 gram of protein per pound of LEAN body mass.
Avoid ultra-processed foods. These are foods that are designed to have long shelf lives and are usually found in boxes or wrappers. They are expertly engineered to make you want to eat MORE. Studies have shown that people will eat, on average, 400-500 more calories a day if they eat more ultra-processed foods. Avoid these foods and you will probably eat less automatically.
Your hormones and sleep (they are closely connected) can make storing body fat around and under your midsection more or less prevalent. Good sleep is one of the most impactful things that you can do to improve your hormone profile and improve how well your body deals with stress. Make sure to get 7-8 hours of sleep EVERY single night. Set up a sleep routine 1 hour before your target bed time to ensure you have the best chances of good sleep. Turn off all electronics, dim your house lights (or go by candle light), do some easy and relaxing stretching or meditation and allow your body to wind down. Make sure your room is pitch black and slightly cold. All of these things combined have been shown to greatly improve sleep which then tends to improve hormone profiles. As hormone profiles improve and as your body gets more rested it will likely start to store less body fat in and around your midsection.
Eat foods that don’t cause gastrointestinal distress. Being bloated, gassy or being constipated can cause your belly to distend and add inches to your waist. Poor digestion can also increase gut inflammation, which may make you prone to even MORE food digestion issues. All of a sudden, foods that used to not bother your stomach become terrible digestion offenders. Aside from not looking good or feeling good, gut inflammation may also contribute to overall poor health and system wide inflammation. In other words, if you want a flat tummy you will NEED good digestion.
If you have gut issues try avoiding foods that commonly cause digestion issues. This can be very individual, so if you know of a food that tends to bother your gut, avoid them for at least 6 weeks. Other common digestion causing foods include dairy, gluten, legumes, and high FODMAP foods. Sometimes simply getting rid of gut inflammation can make your waist shrink considerably.
Lastly, you can work on and strengthen the muscle in your core that tighten your midsection and draw it in. The transverse abdominis is a muscle that wraps around your core like a corset. When it’s weak or “loose” you are at an increased risk for back pain and the internal organs in your midsection are more likely to “push out” creating a lower belly pooch. This is a common issue among women who are postpartum. When a woman is pregnant her bely expands and distends to make room for the growing baby. The muscle that stretches and weakens most to allow for this is the transverse abdominis. It’s imperative that postpartum women engage in targeted transverse abdominis exercises to regain strength and tonality in this muscle. One of the best exercises to tighten and strengthen this muscle are stomach vacuums. In this video I demonstrate how to perform these.
In my experience training hundreds of clients, getting a flatter midsection is VERY achievable with the above steps. Be patient and consistent and you will see favorable results.