There are many simple and visual “first impression” ways that people assess someone’s physical fitness. These visual cues can give us ideas about someone’s overall health. Body fat percentage, posture, skin clarity and muscularity are all common visual metrics of health; however, they are far from perfect.
There is a wide range of body fat percentages that can represent both excellent and poor health among men and women. Being too heavy or even being too lean can mean poor health. But this quick visual judgement isn’t always reliable when measuring wellbeing. Posture can give us some good information about someone’s postural strength and stability, but it tells us nothing about overall mobility and strength. When skin is clear it often times signifies good internal health, however, modern medical treatments, makeup and even plastic surgery can create the illusion of healthy skin. A muscular body demonstrates good muscle development and a higher than average level of physical strength. However, someone could take steroids and eat and train in a very unbalanced way which would be the opposite of good overall health. Some of the unhealthiest people I have ever met had big muscular bodies.
There is another visual cue that we use that may be one of the most accurate signs of good health. If you are like most people, you want your midsection to be flat. This makes sense considering how strong of a signal this visual cue sends people. It’s also not a perfect visual signal (you can be very unhealthy and have a flat stomach), but alone it tells us more than almost any other single visual sign. In order to have a flat midsection, you need to be lean, have a good amount of core stability and strength and you need to have good hormone and gut health. If one of those things is out of order your belly will usually show it. Below, I break down the things you will need to understand in order to possess a flat stomach.
Too much body fat
This one is obvious. If you are holding on to too much body fat, it will be all but impossible to hit your goal of a flat tummy. To get leaner you MUST be in a caloric deficit. In other words, REGARDLESS OF DIET, you need to eat less calories than you burn. This is best achieved by both eating less calories AND by getting your body to burn more calories.
First you need to figure out your maintenance caloric requirements (how many calories you need to consume to stay the same weight). The best and most accurate at home way to do this is to simply track all your calories for the next two weeks. There are many free calorie tracking apps out there that will make this easy. For the next two weeks eat as you normally would, but make sure to track every bite and drink that you have. At the end of the two weeks figure out your average caloric intake per day and VIOLA you have your maintenance caloric number. Now eat under this amount every day to start losing weight.
You should also include some resistance training in this approach to prevent your metabolism from slowing down and to prevent muscle loss. Lifting weights will keep your metabolic rate high and may even SPEED IT UP during this process. This makes staying in a caloric deficit easier as your body will burn MORE calories than before. I suggest you lift weights two days a week minimum. Lift in a traditional fashion (not with circuits or classes) and aim to get stronger. If you get stronger at lifting heavy things, the odds are your metabolism is speeding up.
Hormones out of balance
An unhealthy hormone profile may actually promote fat storage in your belly area. For men, low testosterone contributes to visceral belly fat. This is the kind of body fat that is UNDER the muscles and around the organs. Lots of visceral belly fat creates a big, hard and swollen belly look. Visceral fat is also the unhealthiest of fats as it contributes more to all-cause mortality than other forms of body fat.
Women don’t readily store belly fat as easily as men. They tend to store more in their hips, thighs, butt and back of the arms. However, this does not mean women are immune to belly fat. One way that alternative medicine practitioners can diagnose hormone issues in women is with the presence of more than usual belly fat. When a woman’s estrogen to progesterone balance is suboptimal, some studies suggest they will store more belly fat and visceral belly fat than normal.
When the stress hormone cortisol is out of balance both men and women will store more belly fat. Cortisol is called the stress hormone because it predictably rises when you are under stress. When cortisol is released it tells the body to release energy to prepare for either fight or flight. It gives us energy which is why we all naturally have a spike in cortisol in the morning to help us wake up. Cortisol is an essential hormone but it can wreak havoc on your body if it’s too high for too long.
The good news is that for most, otherwise healthy people, balancing out our hormones is possible. Exercise appropriately for your body, eat a balanced and healthy diet for your body, place a priority on good quality sleep, and practice a daily stress management routine. Keep in mind that you are an individual and all of the things I just mentioned are different from person to person. If you are active, eat right, get good sleep and do something every day that is calming and restorative, it’s likely that your hormones will reflect it.
Gut inflammation and bloat
What happens to you when you eat something that doesn’t fully agree with your gut? You probably get really bloated. This can also happen chronically to a smaller degree. You could be eating foods that are causing a small amount of bloat and you may not even realize it. Low level gut inflammation and bloat could literally be adding inches to your waist. When I have clients identify and remove their food intolerances, they are always blown away by how much FLATTER their stomachs get. It’s all due to reduced bloat and/or inflammation.
The common gut bloating food offenders are gluten, dairy, too much processed sugar, and legumes. Eliminate these foods for the next four weeks and then slowly re-introduce them one at a time for a week at a time and pay attention to how they make you feel. If you identify one of them as an offender, remove it from your diet for a full year. After the year is up, re-introduce said food again to see if you still have an intolerance. This process is a bit labor intensive but it can produce remarkable results. I’ve seen clients lose INCHES from their waists without even getting leaner. It was all because of bloat reduction.
You may also have a less than flat stomach because of low level chronic constipation. If you aren’t fully excreting the food you eat daily, then your gut will not be as flat as it could be. Alternative health practitioners say that at least one bowel movement a day is optimal. Constipation can be caused by many things, but two things I have seen work on most of my clients is to drink lots of water and to eat LOTS of well-cooked vegetables. How much? Three full servings a day. Cooking them helps break down the fiber so that they are more easily digestible.
Your belly may also not be flat because the muscles around your midsection are under developed. I am not talking about the abs or the obliques either. It’s true that those muscles are part of your midsection and that, if you get lean enough, those are the muscles that you tend to see (six pack abs), but those muscles do not make your waist tight. That honor goes to a lesser known muscle called the transverse abdominal (TVA).
The TVA muscle wraps around your midsection like a corset or a weight belt. Stand up and suck in your stomach. Congratulations, you just tensed up your TVA. When the TVA is weak and underdeveloped you lose core stability, have an increased risk of back injury, and your belly will stick out a bit more. This is most obvious in women who have just had a baby. The growing baby requires the TVA muscles to stretch and atrophy which is why, post birth, many women struggle with a lower belly “pooch” even after they lose the baby weight.
This is an easy remedy. All you have to do is train your TVA muscles. My favorite exercise for the TVA is the stomach vacuum (here I demonstrate). Do this movement every single day for 5-10 minutes and your TVA will respond quickly by strengthening and by keeping your belly tighter.