At any given time of year, at least a few of the magazines on the shelves will have some article or headline dedicated to helping you finally achieve that oh-so-coveted flat stomach, six pack abs, toned tummy, sexy midriff – whatever you want to call it. For many of us, though, we do our best to eat right and exercise on a regular basis, and while the rest of our body looks fit, our mid-section doesn’t seem to change. This is because not all tummies are caused by excess weight, so trying to lose weight won’t change them.
That being said, most tummies are unfortunately related to weight gain, so let’s first take the time to understand whether this is the root cause for you.
2 Main Types of Belly Fat
1. Visceral Fat
This belly type generally has to do with having too much excess body fat. Unlike men, who traditionally carry their fat around their middle and have thinner limbs, most women carry their extra fat in their hips and thighs (for childbearing purposes) and on their arms and chest area. When those areas run out of space, fat storage will begin to happen around the middle. This visceral fat is a problem because it accumulates right around our internal organs. It is linked to metabolic disturbances and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes. For women, in particular, it can contribute to the development of breast cancer and the need for gallbladder surgery. (1)
2. Love Handles
Not belly fat, but still in that region, love handles sound sexy but are another sign of dangerous visceral fat. Again, this type of tummy is a red flag for risk of more serious medical conditions down the road and is a sign that some concentrated lifestyle changes need to take place, the sooner the better. Love handles causes your body to become stressed and inflamed, which is the number one cause of chronic disease. Lose the fat, decrease the inflammation, and you will not only achieve a flat belly, but you will be healthier because of it. (1)
Often, women going through menopause will start to notice the development of love handles that weren’t there before. Losing weight during menopause is challenging, but not impossible. Consider making these changes to help you lose the belly fat no matter what age you are: (2)
Cut out Sugar: Including candies, desserts, and sugary drinks
Eat fewer fried foods
Eat more fish
Eat out less
Consume more fruits and vegetables and fewer meats and cheeses
Exercise more and incorporate more movement into your day
3 Belly Types and Why You Don’t Have a Flat Tummy
Sometimes your inability to achieve a flat tummy despite reaching your body goals everywhere else could be a sign of a more serious health problem. If you have any of the symptoms listed here, consider talking to your doctor about them.
1. Bloating Throughout the Day
A moment of truth here: Bloating sucks! It’s uncomfortable and completely covers up the fact that you have been doing all the right things to have the tummy you want. There are many reasons why we (especially women) get bloated, and it’s important to understand them so we know how to respond. (3)
Hormonal (PMS): Any women with a uterus knows what this one is like. Bloating due to menstruation is an unfortunate fact of life for most pre-menopausal women, and it’s not one that you can do much about. Thankfully, it is not a sign of anything dangerous (if anything, it shows that your body is in working order), however, if you suffer from really difficult, painful PMS symptoms there are solutions. Make sure to talk to your doctor or naturopath if your PMS is particularly unbearable. (3)
Digestive Issues: If you are constantly finding yourself bloated, especially after meals, even when you are not on your period, this could be a sign of problems such as IBS, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, or food sensitivities. Certain digestive conditions can be determined from a blood test, however just because your test comes back negative does not mean you may not still have a problem.
Keep a journal where you track what you ate, when you ate it, and how you felt immediately after as well as a couple of hours later; this will help you to determine which food or foods are causing you difficulty. Consider trying the elimination diet with some of the most common food offenders (wheat, dairy, soy, nightshades, legumes, etc.). Lastly, consult a nutritionist or naturopathic doctor for help. (3)
Fluid Retention: Sometimes a little belly bloat is actually caused by excess fluid retention around your middle. This could be edema or ascites and could be a sign of liver disease or certain cancers. Talk to your doctor immediately if you struggle with excess fluid retention. (3)
Dehydration: Coupled with electrolyte imbalance, dehydration will slow your digestive system right down, which causes food to sit longer and cause gas and bloating. You may also experience fluid retention as your body overcompensates while trying to recover and rehydrate. (3)
Constipation: Having stool in your intestine will give you a hard feeling stomach, pain, gas, and bloating. Constant constipation is usually caused by lack of fiber in the diet, not enough water and physical activity, and too much stress. Constipation could be a sign of something more serious, however, so if it persists despite making healthy lifestyle changes, talk to your doctor.(3)
SIBO: Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth from abnormal bacteria in your GI tract will cause gas and bloating. When harmful bacteria take over your intestines, they damage your stomach and intestinal lining making it difficult to digest food and produce unwanted gas. Some foods can cause this, and there are some dietary changes you can make to repopulate your gut with good bacteria. (3)
Bowel Obstruction: This could be caused by scar tissue or a tumor that grows and presses on your bowel. This blocked bowel will then retain fluid and stool, which not only causes bloating but also abnormal bowel movements and can be very painful. Bowel obstruction can be dangerous, so talk to your doctor immediately if you suspect this for yourself. (3)
2. Lower Belly “Pooch”
This is normal for most women, and doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong (it just means you have a uterus!). However, if it is exaggerated, or changes over time, this could be a sign of uterine fibroids. If you also experience extremely heavy or long periods, pelvic pressure or pain, frequent urination, difficulty emptying your bladder, constipation, or back or leg pains, get checked by your doctor to take care of this problem. (4)
3. Post-Partum Tummy
Congratulations! You had a baby, and guess what? Mummies have tummies! It is perfectly acceptable for any women who has had children, recently or not, to have a little bit of a tummy. Pregnancy changes your hormones and your body, and that is normal. Of course, proper diet and a healthy exercise routine can help to get rid of your post-baby belly.
For mom’s wanting to start exercising, there are only a few rules you need to follow: (5)
Wait: Vaginal births usually require a minimum of 6 weeks before continuing a normal exercise routine, and cesarean sections can take even longer. Your doctor can help you determine what timeframe is best for you.
Start slow: Gentle kiegel and pelvic floor exercises are best in the weeks following delivery, and gentle walks will get you moving outside with your baby without causing stress on the body.
Start with lower impact cardio and work your way up in intensity. For strength training, start with body weight or light-weight (baby weight?) exercises focusing on stability, control, and left and right side balance before going heavy again.
Take advantage of post-partum and other fitness videos on YouTube and elsewhere. There are plenty of exercise videos and classes geared towards moms in all post-baby stages!
Try exercising with your baby (baby-weight squats!), and consider investing in a baby backpack, carrier, or a specific walking and jogging stroller. Participate in local mother-baby classes to help you work out with your baby and get to know other new moms in the area.
As you can see, there are any number of reasons why you may have a belly that you are struggling to get rid of. Make sure to assess all of your symptoms, and if you are even just a little concerned, consult your doctor or a naturopathic doctor to help you make sense of your symptoms and keep your health on the right track.