Ugh! “Why can’t I get a flat stomach!?” I exclaimed as I angrily grabbed my lower stomach in the mirror. Sound familiar? I’ll admit - I’ve felt fear and panic while watching Women’s Health reels on Instagram. I’ve stared anxiously at those women on Instagram in seafoam green or sky blue yoga pants and hot pink sport bras smiling proudly as they repeat endless super squats. I’ve sighed unhappily at my stomach. Unhappy with myself, I’ve showered quickly after my religious workout with no breakfast.
I’ve been there, but guess what? Not all women are biologically built for a flat tummy, and I - we should stop stressing. Also, restrictive eating is not always the recipe for a flat stomach. Let’s take a look at some the reasons restrictive eating is not always the key and why the beloved flat tummy fairy tale is a fallacy.
Restrictive Eating Increases Cortisol
In a 2010 study on low calorie dieting by the American Psychosomatic Society, “a group of healthy women showed increased cortisol levels after restricting their diets for three weeks. “ “Restricting one’s eating creates physical hunger, which can lead to nervousness and depression. Increased cortisol is an indicator of stress and often accompanies weight gain. Researchers randomly assigned participants to four groups: monitoring and restricting, restricting only, monitoring only, and control. The restricting only group received pre-packaged meals and followed diet plans similar to Jenny Craig. In that study, each trial lasted three weeks. All participants conducted their own saliva sampling to measure cortisol levels. One of the key findings was that restrictive eating increases cortisol levels.”
WebMD defines restrictive eating as consciously choosing not to surpass a certain number of calories despite hunger or the improper functioning of one’s body. If restrictive eating is causing your body to have a stress response, here are some of the things that can happen.
Physiologist and biochemist, Dr. Brian Walsh states that “during a stress response, your body produces a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is made in your adrenal gland, and its main function is to increase blood sugar. Your body necessitates high blood sugar during stressful situations because blood sugar provides energy for your cells to make ATP. ATP is a compound that enables cells to help get you out of a stressful situation.”
While this process is necessary, you don’t want too much cortisol. As our muscles are made up of proteins and amino acids, chronic high cortisol eventually breaks down muscle tissues. As mentioned before, the primary job of cortisol is raising blood sugar, but it also breaks down proteins (like those composing muscles tissues) into amino acids and then converts them into to blood sugar. This poses an issue. If you’re losing muscle, you’re also slowing down your metabolic rate. And a slower metabolic rate means that you’re not able to burn as many calories, especially at rest. Likewise, restrictive eating might not be for everyone when it comes to losing fat (Walsh, 2011).
Additionally, it’s true that cortisol burns fat, but it also does other things that can cause the body to build fat. Although it burns peripheral fat, it increases visceral vat. Too much visceral fat is well known to be a contributor to things like insulin resistance (glucose not entering into the cells as easily, and likewise building up in the blood. This can lead to type 2 diabetes.) Visceral fat lies in the spaces between the abdominal organs, and unfortunately, visceral fat secretes many pro-inflammatory molecules that can increase your body’s inflammation. Inflammation is a stressor, and therefore, it can release more cortisol, a possible cause of slower metabolism and the retention of visceral fat (Walsh, 2011).
If you have high cortisol, you’re likely in some stressful situations. When following a food regimen, you can avoid increases in cortisol by controlling portions rather than refusing your body food when you’re genuinely hungry. Remember, your digestive organs need just as much love as your skin or your muscles. In many aspects of life, pushing and disciplining yourself can be good, but it’s better to do it when you’re not hungry.
Did you know some fat protects organs?
In addition to having room for digestive organs, like your stomach, liver, and intestines, subcutaneous fat can protect the reproductive organs of people ASFAB (Judith Marcin, Md. Healthline 2018).
The top layer of your skin is the epidermis. The middle layer is the dermis. Subcutaneous fat is the deepest layer (Judith Marcin, Md. Healthline 2018).
Subcutaneous fat has five main functions (Judith Marcin, Md. Healthline 2018):
- It’s the one way that your body stores energy.
- It functions as padding to protect your muscles and bones from the impact of hits or falls.
- It serves as a passageway for nerves and blood vessels between your skin and your muscles.
- It insulates your body, helping itregulate temperature.
- It attaches the dermis to the muscles and bones with its special connecting tissue.
This process of naturally storing subcutaneous fat cells in the stomach area begins during adolescence and young adulthood in preparation for childbearing later in life,” Ashley Wood, an RN says. Unfortunately, it’s during adolescence, the time our bodies change the most, that we are exposed to rigid body standards.
Everyone has different genes.
Age, sex, hormones, sleep habits, and genetics all contribute to how our bodies look. For example, people ASFAB (assigned female at birth) tend to store fat in their lower stomachs while people AMAB (assigned male at birth) tend to store it in the middle of their stomachs. According to a 2014 review in Diabetologia, “researchers have found good evidence that body fat distribution (FD) is controlled by genetic factors." Moreover,Harvard Health Publishing notes that “over 400 different genes have been implicated in weight.”
So, while many think the difference between women with flat tummies and those without is solely a matter of diet, exercise, and adequacy - that’s simply not true. There are so many factors that play into your body shape. Flattening your tummy does not have to be the focus because it’s not necessarily an indication of health. Self-love, self-care, eating food that does good things for your body, practicing good measure and physical activity is what makes for a healthy life.
Live well, and take a look at some ways to practice self-love every day.