Made ya look! That is what my kids would have said…I am guessing just the words “flat belly” attract a lot of attention. As far as “Flat Belly Syndrome”, well, I made that up. Those words seem to describe what I have seen way too many times over the years.If you look at the actual definition of “syndrome” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the description fits.
By definition a “syndrome” is:1) a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality and 2)a set of concurrent things (such as emotions and actions) that usually form an identifiable pattern. Typically the signs I see are extreme body checking coupled with trying to do something about it, such as diet.
So after an email from a fellow dietitian asking about what I say to patients who ask about getting rid of belly fat, it got me thinking. We both felt we would be millionaires if we got a dollar every time someone asked that question.
But what DO I say?
From my experience with both adults and children (yes, children), it seems there is a very extreme and weird focus on bellies. Be honest, do you look at yourself sideways in the mirror? More than once in awhile? It made sense to me with my eating disorder patients, that they would focus on a particular body part, that is part of the illness. A distraction from something much more important (easier to fret about a belly verses a bad relationship). But when an 11 year old boy sits in front of you and looks totally distraught, just because he is beginning puberty and has some belly fat, well, it saddens me. Where did this come from? Why is this important to a child?
I believe it is our culture of course which is reinforced unfortunately at home, where parents and relatives don’t think before they speak. About their bodies and what they don’t like, and how big their bellies are. Advertisements are everywhere, it is almost comical when you get in line to check out at the grocery store. Take a look at the magazines. I bet more than half of them have some ad or mention of “How to get a flat belly” or “Lose that belly fat!”, you get it. Have you ever stopped to ask “why?”. Personally, it angers me. They are trying to sell magazines, and those stupid ads work. Ugh. As if all those people in the world who have a “flat belly” or 6 pack or whatever the goal is….are they happy now?
And what DO I tell my patients who ask about that. This is what I tell them:
1. Where you carry your body fat is genetic. Some people (if you look around) have very slim legs and larger bellies, some have not much of a belly but larger hips and legs. We are all different.
2. Imbalanced nutrition does not help you reach the healthiest body you can have. We all need protein and adequate fluids (or you may retain water which can make you feel bloated and if you are obsessed with your belly, well, that does not help). Extreme dieting also does not help. Poor eating contributes to digestive issues (constipation?) and that never makes you feel good.
3. Doing 100 crunches may make your tummy muscles strong (since I am not a fitness expert, you may want to consult one regarding if 100 crunches is even a good idea. I think not.). Anyway, strong stomach muscles are fantastic (good for the back according to my husband’s doctor), however they do not affect the fat on top of the muscle. So talk to a fitness expert (American College of Sports Medicine or ACSM certified is your best bet) to see about the right amount of exercise to strengthen your muscles. Getting stronger is a good goal. Trying to achieve a certain stomach if it is not in your genes is not a good goal.
4. Finally, how much time are you spending on trying to have the perfect belly? If you are thinking of this on a daily basis, it could be a red flag. Are you going through something you really don’t want to deal with? If so, please consider chatting with a professional, just to be sure (such as a therapist). A flat belly won’t help anything.
Finally, can you entertain the idea of focusing on being healthier? Being healthy is a good goal, and adopting healthy behaviors such as eating healthier, moving more, getting enough sleep and addressing your real issues will most definitely help you fight the stupidity about 6 packs.
In my day, that meant beer.