Why six pack abs on women do more harm than good.
Put your hand up if you think washboard abs are a sign of good health?
Well chances are if you are female, having a low body fat % could be doing you more harm than good.
I reached out to Kate Callaghan a fellow personal trainer, dietitian and nutritionist plus lifestyle coach. She has a degree in Bachelor of Nutrition & Dietetics (Hons, First Class) amongst other achievements. You can read more about her here.
A few years back, I had washboard abs – that 6 pack that so many of us women lust after, and admire amongst all of the #fitspo. I was the picture of health. The only problem, though, was that I wasn’t healthy at all. While I might have looked healthy (or what society perceives “healthy” to look like these days), I was anything but – my period had stopped and I was therefore infertile, my lack of sex hormone production was putting my bone and heart health in jeopardy, and I actually felt like crap – no energy, poor memory, non-existent sex drive, brain fog, suppressed immune function.
Why did this happen? In part, because my body fat levels were too LOW for body to function optimally.
How so? Let me explain a little…..
Women are not men. Yes, I know you know this, but sometimes we can get carried away with things and use what might be suitable for our male counterparts on ourselves. Case in point – being super-lean and ripped, with as little body fat as possible. While men can get away with quite low body fat levels (though they still need some), our hormone production starts to falter when we go below about 18% body fat (mine used to sit around 13%).
This happens for a couple of reasons:
Our fat cells produce a little hormone called “leptin”
Leptin acts as an energy thermostat – telling our brain that there is (or isn’t) sufficient energy around for optimal cellular function. When we have adequate body fat levels, leptin tells our hypothalamus, in our brain, that all is well and we aren’t in a famine. The hypothalamus then responds by releasing a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which tells your pituitary gland (also in your brain) to release Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinising Hormone (LH). These last 2 hormones are ESSENTIAL for healthy menstruation, ovulation, and sex hormone production. If they are not being released in adequate amounts, reproductive function will be suppressed, and this does not just result in infertility, but also issues with your bones, heart, immune system, brain, skin, gut and mood (to name a few). So for those of you who might not want a baby, this is important for you to know, too. A healthy, ovulatory menstrual cycle is a sign of whole-body health. Think of it as the canary in the coal-mine. If it’s wonky, it’s a sign that something in your body is not right.
Our fat cells produce oestrogen
While most of our oestrogen (our main sex hormone) production occurs in the ovaries, and to a lesser extent, our adrenal glands, some production also occurs in our fat cells. If we have zero body fat, then this is going to be removing one of our sources of this beautiful hormone that keeps us looking, and feeling, good.
Moral to the story – if we want to look, feel and perform at our best, we need to embrace a little softness on our body. Abs are not the be-all and end-all. They certainly won’t be the ‘one thing’ that makes your life perfect. Trust me – I have been there.
But what about stubborn belly fat?
OK – so you’re not too lean. You have a healthy menstrual cycle. But you have this stubborn belly fat that just won’t go away no matter how well you eat, or how smart you exercise.
If it is actually EXCESS body fat, then I would suggest taking a look at your stress levels. Chronic stress (and this can be mental, emotional or physical stress) causes the hormone “cortisol” to be elevated beyond appropriate levels. Cortisol really should only be utilised intermittently with impending doom (to allow us to run away from the hypothetical tiger chasing us), but in today’s high stress world, cortisol is inappropriately elevated all the time. This creates inflammation in the body, can lead to an increase in the hormone insulin (which, in part, is responsible for fat storage), and tends to deposit fat around the mid-section.
So think about introducing some daily stress management practices. Two of may favourite ways to bring down cortisol and support optimal hormone function are:
Deep belly breathing – as soon as you wake up in the morning, while still lying in bed, place your hands on your belly. As you inhale, feel your belly rise. As you exhale, feel your belly fall. Do this 10 times before starting your day. It’s the fastest way to get out of “fight or flight” mode and into “rest, digest and reproduce” mode where our hormones flourish
Legs up the wall pose – AKA Viparita Kirani. It is what the name suggests – you lie down with your butt against the wall, and legs up the wall, for about 10mins at night. Incredibly calming! Try it!
I hope this helps. Please remember – abs do not necessarily equate with health. And stubborn belly fat is often a reflection of too much stress….so don’t just tell yourself to “suck it up and train harder”….as that will probably backfire.
You can find Kate on instagram @theholisticnutritionist
you can find her book here Holistic Nutrition