The science of a flat stomach

  • There is no silver bullet for achieving a flat stomach according to science
  • You can’t specifically target belly fat – you have to reduce your overall body fat percentage
  • The most important part of getting a flat stomach is consuming fewer calories than you burn 

Crunching your way through ab exercises that promised you a flat stomach in 10 days?

Unfortunately for you and your skinny jeans, that’s not how our bodies work. It takes a lot of time and hard work to trim the fat off your body. Sometimes it takes months. 

How does belly fat work?

The first thing to know is that we all already have abs – they're just hiding underneath the fat. According to Harvard Health, there are two kinds of fat in your stomach area.

Subcutaneous fat forms just under the skin and are the wobbly bits you can normally grab with your hand. This kind of fat is generally harmless. 

Visceral fat, however, is the more dangerous form of fat, and you can’t see it. It forms around your organs and has been proven to increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

This fat also stimulates cortisol, a steroid that, in turn, promotes more fat accumulation. 

These cells can impact the hormonal balance in your body, making it important to keep visceral fat in check.

READ: How to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, according to experts

What doesn’t reduce your belly fat?

What may surprise you is that abdominal exercises have little impact on your belly fat.

A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2011 shows that those crunches you love to hate have little impact on your abdominal fat. 

All it does is tone your ab muscles, but that doesn’t help much if you can’t see them underneath all the fat. 

And science isn’t on your side when it comes to "spot reduction", the idea that you can target a specific body part for weight loss. 

Healthline compiled a summary of various studies on this concept, and while some showed success, most scientists concluded that it's not possible, no matter what exercises you do.

The only way to reduce belly fat is to reduce the body fat percentage of your whole body – and unfortunately due to genetics, age and sex, you have no control over where you’ll lose the fat first. 

ALSO READ: Want to stay trim? Don't eat in the evening

What does help?

It doesn’t take an expert to figure it out that weight loss largely comes down to your diet. The most important component is to consume fewer calories than you burn, while ensuring you get all the nutrients needed to stay healthy. 

Check what’s in your fridge, and if there isn't much in the way of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts, put them on your shopping list. If you see lots of chips, cookies, junk food and unhealthy carbs, think about removing them from your daily menu. 

It’s important, however, to incorporate complex carbohydrates in your diet, and if you want to retain your muscle mass, make sure you include enough lean protein.

You need to restrict alcohol consumption, and try to avoid foods with a high glycaemic index. This is the value given to how fast or slowly food turns into blood glucose, and is handy when working towards weight loss. 

It’s important to understand how calories work, and accurately counting your calories is a lot easier to do with a handy tracking app. 

In terms of exercise – which you shouldn't write off just yet – it’s important to make resistance training part of your regime. One study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences in 2014, found that a combination of aerobics and resistance training was far more effective at reducing body fat than aerobics alone.

resistance training

Like the folks over at Nerd Fitness say, it’s important to start off slowly and ease yourself into your new routine, and not expect results overnight. Also don’t be scared to get professional help, whether it is a trainer, nutritionist or healthcare professional.

And the hardest thing to do after achieving a flat stomach is, of course, maintaining it.

Image credit: Pixabay

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