Who doesn't want a toned midsection? Between infomercials promising fast results and sales of home gyms to over 25 million American households, flat abs seem like a national obsession.
While it's enticing to believe you're only a couple crunches away from achieving such a goal, exercise comprises only part of the picture.
How's your digestion? Your diet? Do you eat more fast food than fresh, home-cooked meals? A look at your lifestyle and eating habits may reveal root causes for an inability to attain abs of steel.
Poor digestion, food allergies, and a host of other internal issues lead to bloating and excess fat that no amount of crunches can fix.
Eating the wrong foods, not eating regularly, or not eating enough can all contribute to bacteria responsible for bloating, gas, and even diarrhea, says Tim Ramirez, DC, SPN, MRT, founder of Pacifica Wellness, in Costa Mesa, California.
"Eating too many starchy foods, or foods with artificial colors and flavors plays a role. You want to avoid eating any food that can sit on a grocery shelf for three months or longer. All those preservatives mean your body isn't going to be able to digest easily."
Although some bloating after meals is normal, frequent bouts of bloat can push abdominal muscles outward, stretching them and creating a saggy stomach.
"Think of an overstuffed plastic bag and how it stretches," says Dr. Ramirez. "The same thing happens with your abdominal wall. Undigested food creates gas and a ballooning of the lower abdominals—a 'pooching' out of the abdominal wall in that area."
In lieu of bloat-invoking processed foods, focus instead on fresh foods and well-balanced meals.
"Foods that can spoil are good because they will also break down easier in your body," says Dr. Ramirez.
Aside from food, carbonated beverages and alcohol may also be to blame.
"You can't drink a lot of alcohol and expect to have toned abs, too."
Dr. Ramirez recommends a gradual cleanse versus extreme cleanses involving days of fasting. "You shouldn't have to starve yourself," he adds.
Instead, substitute a cleansing formula such as those found in natural products stores for two out of the eight to ten glasses of water you drink a day.
"A moderate cleanse will change how you're absorbing your food and eliminate abdominal bloating at the same time," Dr. Ramirez says.
In addition to a diet high in processed foods, lack of stomach acid (hydrochloric acid) can also inhibit digestion and cause bloating.
"Stomach acid is important not only for breaking down food but also for triggering the pancreas and gall bladder to do their jobs," says Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc, author of Natural Choices for Women's Health.
Low stomach acid can result from the natural aging process, stress, or an infection with Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that causes inflammation that may lead to gastritis as well as stomach ulcers.
"To treat low stomach acid, I recommend that my patients drink warm lemon water before meals," says Dr. Steelsmith. Digestive enzymes taken immediately after a meal also aid the body in breaking down and assimilating nutrients from food for improved comfort and overall health.
If you're guilty of eating while driving or walking and talking, you're setting the stage for digestive issues as well. "Eating on the run can cause people to have poor digestion resulting in low digestive 'juices,' which can then cause bloating," explains Dr. Steelsmith.
The solution? Slow down and enjoy your meals instead of multi-tasking.
Imbalances of intestinal flora may also be responsible for a bloated belly. If you have chronic yeast vaginitis, toenail fungus, or if you've used antibiotics more than once a year, you may want to be tested for yeast overgrowth, recommends Dr. Steelsmith.
Herbal products effective at rearranging gut flora include garlic, Pau d'arco tea, and berberine, a compound derived from goldenseal.
Probiotic supplements support digestion and help keep yeast in check, as well. Check with your naturopathic doctor or the trained staff at the store that gives you remedies for specific dosage recommendations.
Food allergies can subtly manifest as simple bloating. In fact, you may be allergic to foods you eat every day.
"Allergies can cause bloating and gas and may even contribute to irritable bowel syndrome," says Dr. Steelsmith.
Assessing for allergies consists of eliminating common food allergens and then reintroducing them back into the diet one at a time and gauging the body's reaction.
A typical test involves eliminating foods such as gluten, wheat, peanut, dairy, eggs, soy, yeast, sugar, and corn.
“If you wish to test yourself for food allergies, avoid eating a suspicious food for five days, and then challenge it on the sixth day by eating that food a number of times.” Watch for symptoms such as gas or bloating for the next three days.
"Some food reactions are triggered by an immune cell response within hours of eating the food, where other food allergens may take 24 to 72 hours," says Dr. Steelsmith.
Even if you test negative for food allergies, a food sensitivity may be at work, which can also cause bloating, says Holly Lucille, ND, RN, of Los Angeles, California. "Testing for food sensitivities is not as involved as testing for outright food allergies, but ruling out an offending food can have an amazing ability to slim you down."
If you suspect you may have sensitivities, take a common offending food such as wheat out of your diet for a month. If you feel better and your stomach flattens out, you likely have your answer.
Fat & Hormones
Stubborn excess belly fat in both men and women could also be due to an estrogen excess. The danger of belly fat goes beyond aesthetics, as excess fat in the abdominal area increases risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
"In our estrogen-dominant society [estrogen levels increase in perimenopausal and menopausal women; testosterone in middle-aged men converts to estrogen with age as well], men and women can both accumulate excess fat around the midsection as a result," says Dr. Lucille. "One solution may be taking an estrogen-balancing nutrient such as diindolemethane, commonly known as DIM. It has been shown to act as an efficient fat burner by encouraging healthy estrogen metabolism and can help eliminate a pouchy stomach."