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Why a little bit of belly fat might actually be a good thing


Photo: Lumina
Photo: Lumina

It’s summer, which means women’s magazines are filled with articles promising to help rid you of “stubborn belly fat.” (Because, crop tops!) But what if that cushy zone under your navel had a really legit reason for wanting to stay put?

Turns out, it does. In fact, some experts attest that ultra-cut abs could be just as detrimental to a woman as having too much belly fat.

Now, let it be known that a certain type of belly fat is super harmful. “It’s really important to remember there are two kinds of belly fat,” says Parsley Health founder Robin Berzin, MD. “There’s the kind that sits between the muscle and the skin, called subcutaneous fat, and then there’s the type that’s inside the belly, around the organs.”

It’s this internal fat, she says, that’s most dangerous—the kind that comes from eating inflammatory foods, stressing too much, and exercising too little.

According to FitnessGenes co-founder Dan Reardon, MBChB, this type of belly fat is what gets all the bad press from the medical community. “Central obesity increases your risk of diabetes and insulin resistance, heart disease, and endocrine disorders,” he stresses, adding that it’s also linked to breast and ovarian cancers.

The belly fat-hormone connection

If your waist circumference is bigger than that of your hips or your belly is distended, chances are this dangerous internal fat is to blame. But, says Dr. Berzin, “If you can feel fat on top of the muscle, that’s external fat”—and as women, we all need some degree of that subcutaneous fat in order to help keep our hormones balanced.

“Fat makes estrogen, and without enough fat on their bodies, many women simply won’t have enough of it”

“Fat makes estrogen, and without enough fat on their bodies, many women simply won’t have enough [of it],” explains Dr. Berzin. “Fat doesn’t necessarily need to be on the belly—it should be evenly distributed throughout the body—but you’ll see that when women get too skinny, they often lose their menstrual cycle or are really exhausted all the time.”

Should we be shunning six-packs?

So if the parade of impossibly toned bods on your Instagram feed has you thinking that you, too, should be gunning for a stomach that could cut glass, you may want to rethink your fitness goals.

“Women that have very visible six-packs, in my opinion, have taken their fat loss too far,” says Dr. Reardon. “You’re talking about body fat that’s probably less than 10 or 11 percent.” (He says the “fit” range is between 15-20 percent.)

To hit a healthy medium, says Dr. Berzin, exercise in moderation and replace refined carbs, sugars, and packaged foods with proteins, healthy fats, and fiber at every meal. And, please, enjoy them in a crop top—’tis the season.

A lack of fat isn’t the only thing that’ll throw your hormones out of whack. BPA in canned foods, stress, and medication are also common culprits.