Ever fallen prey to the, “get rid of unsightly belly fat in 7 days or less!” claim? If so, you’re not alone. From diet pills and waist trainers, to belly wraps and detox teas—the lengths to which many companies will go to sell women a “quick-fix belly fat solution” to lose belly fat fast is criminal.
Weight loss is a $64 billion dollar a year industry in the U.S. and many of these companies are run by men on Wall Street who profit off convincing women that we’re not skinny enough, lean enough, or desirable enough, and that only their product can “fix” us. We are told that for just “three easy payments of $29.95” we can finally have the body—and life—of our dreams, in no time at all.
Promising “fast, easy fat loss” is BIG business. Despite enticing claims made by the weight loss industry, sustainable fat loss is rarely fast, but if you focus on a few fundamentals, you can kick-start the process immediately.
We’ll delve into those fat loss fundamentals in a moment, but first we want to be very clear about our stance on fat loss:
At Girls Gone Strong, we believe there’s no wrong way to have a body, and we celebrate strong and beautiful women of all shapes and sizes.
We also believe and that the best way to empower a woman is to allow her to make any decisions she wants about her body and her life without judgment—including changing her body.
We also feel obligated to make it clear that there are serious health risks associated with carrying an excessive amount of belly fat, so if losing belly fat is a goal you choose to undertake, we are on a mission to help you do it with evidence-based, sane, and compassionate advice.
Before we launch into the dangers of excess belly fat, please understand that we aren’t talking about the little “fat roll” on your stomach when you sit down or bend over. That fat is subcutaneous fat, of which some people carry more than others, just as some carry more on their arms or hips and thighs than others. That is genetically determined. The belly fat we are discussing is the deep, visceral, metabolically active fat that surrounds your organs and increases your risk for heart disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.
The problem with this visceral fat is that’s it’s sneaky and hides deep in your abdominal cavity, and may not be as obvious as the subcutaneous fat that lies directly beneath your skin. However, there’s a super simple measurement you can take to help determine if the belly fat you carry increases your health risks. A measurement, called the waist-to-hip ratio, is used in clinical practice to assess disease risk1. Essentially, if your waist size is equal to, or greater than your hip size, you will have a measurement of 1 or greater.
However, don’t be naive in assuming that if your waist to hip ratio is 1 or less, your health risks are negligible.
If your waist measurement is just near 1, there is a good chance that your current lifestyle is conducive to gaining more belly fat—unless, of course, it was higher before. In that case, you’re probably on your way to lower levels of visceral fat and a smaller waist measurement and waist to hip ratio.
Remember, excess belly fat health risks are serious and include increased risk of developing heart disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.
Losing belly fat is a broad topic and at times difficult to discuss, because there is a large spectrum upon which people fall. On one end are the individuals who carry significant amounts of belly fat, and have increased risk for developing disease. Their main goal is to lose belly fat to decrease their health risks. On the other end of the spectrum, you have individuals who are trying to shed the last few pounds of subcutaneous fat on their belly to achieve clearly defined abs.
As you can imagine, the behaviors necessary to reach these goals look quite different, and the reason you can’t lose belly fat is because you’re not following the protocols outlined below, based on your specific goal.
The first group responds quite well to basic lifestyle changes including more healthful nutrition habits and implementing a basic exercise regimen. The second group requires a much more specific and targeted approach to fat loss including very closely monitored food intake, a specific and intense training/exercise regimen, and regulation of lifestyle factors including sleep and stress management.
In addition, genetics play a big role here, as some individual’s body types simply carry more abdominal fat than others. If you’re one of these people, you must be much leaner overall to see any kind of abdominal definition, versus someone who is genetically predisposed to carrying less fat in their abdominal area.
No fair, right? Bear in mind that many women with naturally defined, flat stomachs often complain of being too thin, too small breasts, or larger hips and thighs, so be careful not to romanticize someone else’s body and assume that if you have what they have, you’ll finally be happy with your shape. Being happy with your body and comfortable in your skin has significantly more to do with your brain, than how your body looks.
This may come as a shock, but the main causes of belly fat aren’t “the one weird bug living in your gut,” or the “one food you should never eat if you want a flat stomach,” like the spammy advertisements would have you believe as they try to sell their belly fat diet or supplement. It’s a combination of eating more calories than you’re burning and your genetics. Eating more calories than you’re taking in leads to fat gain, and genetics help determine where you gain it.
This means in order to lose belly fat, no matter where you fall on the spectrum from significant excess fat to losing the last couple of pounds, you must be in a calorie deficit.
If you’re in the group that just needs to make basic lifestyle changes, your best bet is to slowly implement healthful nutrition habits into your life in a way that’s sustainable. If you’re in this first group and you’re not losing fat, it’s likely because you aren’t making these changes.
Through our Strongest You Coaching program, we’ve found the best way to do this, is to choose a habit, practice it for two weeks or until it becomes a relatively effortless thing that you do most of the time (we use 80% as a metric), and then move on to the next. Here are some of the nutrition habits we teach our clients how to implement:
If you’re in the group that’s trying to lose the last little bit of fat on your belly, you probably already implement the healthful nutrition habits above, and it’s time to step it up a notch. You will need a more specific and targeted approach that allows you to be in a calorie deficit while maintaining healthy hormone levels. This will likely require measuring, weighing, and logging your food intake, so you can make adjustments over time.
The leaner you are, the more difficult it is to continue getting leaner while maintaining healthy hormone levels. You should incorporate regular dietary breaks where you eat at maintenance calories or slightly above, but not enough to offset the deficit you’re in. These dietary breaks may be one day a week, one consecutive week a month, or two consecutive weeks every 8-12 weeks. It’s important to experiment and find what works for you both psychologically, and physiologically. Some warning signs that your plan isn’t working for you are disruptions in your menstrual cycle, fatigue, injury and soreness, irritability and mood swings.
Let’s be real: there are a ton of myths about belly fat, mostly propagated by companies who care very little about your long-term well-being and mostly care about how much money they can get from your wallet. There’s a reason the weight loss industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, right!?
The mission of Girls Gone Strong is to fight back against these companies and offer sane, sustainable, and compassionate solutions to help you reach your goals.
First thing first, spot reduction is a myth. No amount of crunches or side-bends will “burn” fat off of your belly3. In fact, performing high volumes of abdominal exercises can hypertrophy your abdominal muscles, or make them bigger. Yep. The hundreds of repetitions of crunches and side-bend you faithfully perform may actually make your waist appear bigger instead of smaller. Pretty cruel irony, right?
Don’t be alarmed and assume that you shouldn’t train your abdominals. You absolutely should as strong abdominal muscles are critical to proper function in exercise and everyday life.
However, don’t think you’re using them to spot-reduce body fat. Remember how we said above that being in a calorie surplus leads to fat gain, and genetics help determine where you gain it? Losing belly fat is no different.
You must be in a calorie deficit to lose body fat, and your genetics (not your 1,000 crunches) will help determine where you lose that body fat.
Fat loss pills generally work in one of 3 ways:
There’s no magic here. The bottom line comes down to these pills contributing to an overall calorie deficit, either by helping you take in fewer calories, or helping you expend more calories.
The question is: do these pills really work?
The answer of course, is it depends. According to this review of 12 common fat loss pills by Authority Nutrition, there are some fat loss pills shown to be modestly effective in aiding fat loss, but they often comes with undesirable side effects like irritability, anxiety, and digestive issues. However, the effectiveness of most of these fat loss pills is so minimal compared to the proven effectiveness of nutrition and exercise changes that they aren’t worth your time or your money.
Waist training is all the rage these days and despite what you may have heard from your favorite celebrity, it does absolutely nothing to help you lose belly fat, beyond maybe making it so uncomfortable to eat that you can’t eat as much as you normally would.
In case you’re not clear what “waist training” is, it’s essentially wearing a corset to cinch your waist and make it appear smaller. If you wear the corset tight enough, long enough, and often enough, it can make your waist appear smaller. The problem? Because the waist trainer does nothing to affect your body fat levels, the shrinking of your waistline is due to changes in the structure of your ribcage and displacement of your internal organs.
Let us repeat that.
If you achieve a smaller waist strictly via “waist training” and not through improvements in your diet or exercise regimen, your results are coming from structural changes to your ribcage and displacement of your organs.
Not exactly the results you should be shooting for.
These waist trainers may also contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction by placing excessive downward pressure on the pelvic floor, making them even worse for new Moms who may already be experiencing pelvic floor issues, and who may be particularly emotionally susceptible to anything that promises to shrink their waist post-baby.
That said, these waist trainers are not to be confused with supportive garments that can be helpful in restoring proper core and pelvic floor function post-delivery. Those belly bands and garments offer very light and gentle support, shouldn’t cause any discomfort, and should only be worn for short periods of times post-delivery while working to restore proper core and pelvic floor function.
As mentioned previously, for the first group whose goal is to reduce their health risks, research shows that five days a week of cardiovascular exercise (walking, biking, swimming) for 30 minutes is enough to significantly reduce excess belly fat, however, that doesn’t tell the whole story. As you age, if you don’t incorporate strength training into your exercise regimen, you lose muscle mass. This means as you get older, if your only form of exercise is cardiovascular training, you may lose body fat, but you’ll also lose muscle mass in the process, making it more difficult to maintain this body fat loss over time, as a study by Harvard has recently shown4. This doesn’t even take into account the other benefits of strength training including bone density, better posture, more confidence, and more strength to continue participating in activities as you age.
So what does all of this mean? Yes, cardiovascular exercise alone can lead to belly fat loss, but…
You may be thinking, what about the programs or advertisements for sports like kickboxing, Pilates or Barre classes, promising flat, sculpted abs?
Sorry. None of those exercises will directly lead to belly fat loss, beyond an increase in calorie expenditure. Remember, losing belly fat is a combination of expending more calories than you’re taking in, and your genetics. The size of the calorie deficit will determine how much fat you lose, and your genetic predisposition will help determine where you lose it from.
Of course, intense exercises that burn a significant amount of calories are more likely to lead to belly fat loss than those that burn less. However, exercises that burn a ton of calories are more stressful to your body, and must be balanced with more restorative exercise, so don’t think that if “a little is good, then more is better.” A balance of intense, metabolically expensive exercise with more restorative exercise is your best bet for long-term belly fat loss. That isn’t to say that if you can’t, or don’t want to work intensely that you can’t lose belly fat—you’ll simply have to let your calorie deficit from your nutrition do more of the work!
And if you want help putting this all together? That’s what our Modern Woman’s Fat Loss Handbook is for.