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The “Food Baby” Phenomenon: The Flat Abs Myth Part Two [You're not fat. You're not pregnant. You're normal.]

Posted Oct 24 2012 12:33am

I’ve got news for you. You might want to sit down for this one. Despite what your mother probably told you, babies do not, in fact, grow in stomachs. (Dear children, women are not cannibals and we don’t eat our young. Usually. Don’t push me though, especially when it comes to bedtime.) But do you know what does grow in stomachs? Food. Yes, not only can eating excess food make your stomach bigger but eating any food at all can inflate your stomach from the inside out, like a balloon. If balloons were filled with gas formed by sulfuric veggies like cauliflower and brussels sprouts. And  just like cellulite  and wrinkles, this totally natural, healthy phenomenon is being pathologized.

Behold the evidence:

Fig. 1 Glee actress Lea Michele leaving a nail salon three days ago. Her baggy t-shirt, oversized handbag and tiny tummy pooch sparked instant pregnancy rumors. And then when Michele denied the rumors, the backlash turned to fat accusations.

Fig. 2 Lea Michele yesterday at an Elle magazine event. Despite the fact that I despise the nude lips (Nude is not a lip color – your natural lip color does not match the shade of your skin unless you are dead. Don’t be dead.) and I’m also not a fan of the sheer-over-granny panties look (this one is all your fault, Beyonce!), you have to admit she’s rocking the heck out that dress and that her tummy looks as flat as the proverbial washboard that no one uses anymore and kids under 20 don’t even recognize.

Fig. 3 Totally gratuitous dress shot. While I was googling images for this post I came across this one and HOW FUN would it be to sit in a big poufy ballgown like this? I tried to do this in my wedding dress but the skirt wasn’t full enough so instead I just looked like a deflated cake topper. My dream still lives on though! Someday my friends, I will do my best Disney princess and sink to the floor in a sexy-faint surrounded by yards and yards of shimmery fabric. Mark my words.

From breathlessness over baby bumps to furors over fat – scrutinizing starlet stomachs has become a national pastime. And as fun as it is speculating over strangers’ uteruses, it’s gotten completely out of hand. Even when the accusations are true – which they’re often not – they still ignore a law of nature. Rule #4 of the Physics of the Female Anatomy: a stomach is constantly in a state of flux. And I’m not talking about PMS bloat, a salt binge or even an alien pregnancy. I mean that a girl’s stomach will change shape many times over the course of a single day.

Like many other “problems” women have, I didn’t even realize I also had this issue until someone pointed it out to me. I was at 12-year-old Buffy*’s pool party, strutting my (non-existent) stuff in my new hot pink one-piece with the gigantic bow on the butt, when I suddenly became aware of all the girls staring at Buffy’s bare navel. “Mine is so flat,” she was explaining with all the seriousness of a BBC anchor, “because I haven’t eaten all day.” As my newly eating-disordered brain** processed this bit of trivia she suddenly pointed at my not-taut tummy. “Obviously Charlotte ate lunch before she came.” It was a conversation I would either have or overhear countless times as I got older and the state of the tummy became more important than the State of the Union.

And it turns out the Buffys of the world are both wrong and right. They are correct in that eating food – especially food that produces gas during digestion, especially late in the day – causes your belly to bulge, a phenomenon my friends and I referred to affectionately as a “food baby.” They are wrong to make that shameful.

Registered dietitian Cynthia Sass writes :

“After you eat or drink, food and liquids naturally expand your stomach and intestines, so at least a little “bump” is inevitable every single day, even if your weight and body fat are completely stable.

Some of the healthiest foods, including beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and onions produce gas as they’re being digested, which will expand your GI tract like air filling a balloon. And just eating a bulkier meal, even if it’s super healthy like a large salad, means your midsection will inflate more than if you ate a compact energy bar with the same number of calories.

Then there’s the fizzy bubbles created by carbonation, which are gas, so reaching for sparkling water rather than still can also trigger a temporary extension.

Finally, some not-so healthy-habits can also lead to belly bloat, including smoking, chewing gum, eating too fast, and skipping meals. Each causes you to gulp excess air, which can fill up your GI tract and trigger some swelling.

Bottom line: It’s normal for your belly to bulge a bit and deflate throughout the day, and the degree of post-meal belly expansion has no correlation to how a meal will impact your weight or health. “

Yet while my friends and I may have recognized our food babies and even joked about them, we certainly didn’t love them. In high school, I remember eating only a few bites of a protein bar so my stomach would be perfectly flat in my gold Homecoming sheath dress.  In college we had an apartment rule: no food after two before a date. Even just last year when the Gym Buddies and I were trying to figure out a time to take the photos*** to accompany my slideshow about pool workouts , we all immediately agreed it needed to be first thing in the morning because by four p.m. we would all look four months pregnant.

And sometimes, like for a special occasion, I think it’s okay to try and avoid the bump. Nobody wants to look bloated on their wedding day. The problem for me comes when girls and women expect their bellies to be super flat all the time and then feel like something is wrong with them when it isn’t. Not to mention that for many of us (most of us?) it’s normal to have a little tummy pooch all the time . We’re constantly being sold an image of what a woman “should” look like and yet even those perfect women are never perfect enough. Take, for instance, this comparison of supermodel Deutzen Kroes at a Victoria’s Secret photoshoot:

image credit: Jezebel.com

Notice how even her perfectly flat abs weren’t good enough? Not only did they soften her chest muscle and shave off her lat but they airbrushed out some of the musculature on her abs. Attention ladies: you must now workout 8 hours a day to have a perfectly flat stomach but you must not look like you work out!

Acknowledging that something is normal and not a flaw is the first step to accepting it. Whether we’re being overly critical of Lea Michele or of ourselves, the result is the same: sad. So I say bring on the food babies!

Do you get a food baby sometimes? Are you cool with it or does it make you feel like freak? Any other Rules of the Physics of Female Anatomy we should write? (My #1 rule is that breasts in their natural state do not point straight forward.)

*I would say the name has been changed to protect her identity except that I honestly don’t remember her name. Or even her face. Truly my most vivid memory of that day is my pre-pubescent tummy inflated like a pink lycra zephyr. Sad.

** Yeah, my struggles with eating disorders started in earnest when I was 12. Sad.

*** This picture still makes me grin and grin. Even though I’m a grown adult and still don’t know how to be underwater without holding my nose. Happy.

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