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

by Charlotte on October 23, 2012 · 36 comments

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.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa October 24, 2012 at 5:12 am

I remember being in the locker room and other people showing off/discussing their flat and often concave abs in high school. For whatever reason (oblivious?) I never turned that into something against me, I just thought, “huh, that’s weird, something must be wrong with them”. And I generally didn’t have a problem with body image until my younger sister asked my boyfriend why I had big rolls and he had little rolls. From then on I felt self-conscious about my stomach.

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:26 pm

Ah it’s funny which things really get under our skin isn’t it??

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hannah h October 24, 2012 at 7:39 am

i didn’t realize you were having a flashback when you were talking about the pool party …..I was thinking ” why does Charlotte have a butt bow on her swimsuit….I really thought she was better than that :) ” then I saw you were 12 and felt much better

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Buwhhahah! I just went a re-read that line and you’re right, it isn’t very clear! But no, no bows anywhere on my swimsuits now;)

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Susan October 24, 2012 at 7:43 am

Thanks for another great post. I get self conscience and think I’m going crazy with my stomach being flat one day and puffy the next. You’re right, what type of food you eat is a factor. For me, soy, coconut, and too much sugar will definitely make me gain a whole new pants size for the rest of the day but I’m fine the next day.

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:28 pm

Yep, you’re definitely not the only one! Anytime you want to feel normal in your neuroses, you come to me, girl;)

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Katie October 24, 2012 at 7:59 am

I eat a giant salad every day for dinner. My lunch is usually some combination of those offending gas-causing foods, with a carbonated beverage on the dise. I’m screwed.

But I’m not about to change my eating habits, because I happen to like gas-causing foods. I just eat a gas-ex with lunch. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and I have to shut my office door. But that may not be the best approach, since that just traps the air inside and then someone knocks and my door and yeah. (Overshare?)

I love your bathing suit and I want it!

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Oooh never tried gas-x! I just figure eh, whatever. My kids don’t care. And thanks – I got the suit at Target!

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Bethany October 24, 2012 at 8:11 am

I’ve accepted that food babies are going to happen pretty much daily. If I have any reason to avoid it (like a pool party) I’ll plan my meals for the day accordingly. Otherwise I try not to stress about it.

You know what bugs me, though? Every occasion for showing off a nice tight tummy usually involves copious amounts of food and alcohol. Which means I start off the occasion looking and feeling great, and I’m a bloated mess by the end. What’s the point??

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:31 pm

“Every occasion for showing off a nice tight tummy usually involves copious amounts of food and alcohol. ” Hahah – good point!!

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Steph October 24, 2012 at 8:40 am

Haha, when I was on the swim team, we wore our food babies like a badge of honor! We ate so much :) but swimmers are weird.

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Swimmers are awesome! I love it.

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Abby October 24, 2012 at 9:06 am

Just this morning I was poking my slightly more bloated than normal stomach and cursing myself for eating a doughnut yesterday (even though it was amazingly delicious and I savored every bite.) Definitely couldn’t have been the huge salad I had for dinner or the fact that I’m PMSing! Thanks for the reality check :) I’m going to try to remember this post next time that happens. But yeah, I already know I’m sticking to nutrient dense things on my wedding day like nuts, etc. I don’t want to pass out but that’s one day I refuse to have a food baby!

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Yes to reality checks! And yes to yummy doughnuts!!

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Geosomin October 24, 2012 at 9:36 am

I do get food babies. Particular foods do it to me. Even so, for the most part I have a flat stomach, but mostly because I tend to carry around booty jiggle instead. To each their own :) It drives me crazy when people comment on not perfectly flat “insert body part here”. Aren’t there more important things to worry about?
I totally missed that the pool party thing was when you were younger at first..:)

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Hhaha – you’re not the only one! No big bows on my butt these days, promise!

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Azusmom October 24, 2012 at 9:48 am

Well, since my tummy is already round it’s sometimes hard for me to tell the difference. Except in, um, how I feel (ahem).
And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that VS is photoshopping OUT muscle tone…but I am. *Sigh*
I remember reading an interview with a model who said that after giving birth her hips were “too wide for runway work.” They were probably the circumference of a pencil.
Yergh!

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:37 pm

Yeah I try not to read interviews with models anymore…

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Happier Heather October 24, 2012 at 9:55 am

I am nowhere near having a flat or even flat-ish belly, so my food babies aren’t noticeable. I pretty much always look the same.

I had to laugh at the washboard comment because when we were at Murphy’s Landing historical site a few weeks ago, one of the little kids who was about 12 years old, asked what “that thing in the corner” was. It was a washboard and the tour guide had to explain how it was used.

Also, I cannot be underwater without holding my nose, either. A traumatic experience in swimming lessons is the culprit, I believe.

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:41 pm

I don’t have any traumatic swimming incidents (that I can remember anyhow!) and yet… the nose thing persists. And too funny about the washboard! People say “washboard abs” all the time and I’m pretty sure 90% of them never envision scrubbing dirty clothes on that person’s midsection…

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Jasmine October 24, 2012 at 10:15 am

It’s all right Charlotte, I have to hold my nose when underwater too, just means I’ve perfected the art of the one-arm breast-stroke (it looks as awesomely embarrassing as it sounds).

Oddly, I’ve never really had an issue with my tummy poof, and I’ve been a curvy 16 for my whole adult life. I was always more interested in cooking awesome food and doing cool things with my time than with comparing my belly size with anyone else.

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:43 pm

This: ” I was always more interested in cooking awesome food and doing cool things with my time than with comparing my belly size with anyone else.” is freaking awesome and I love you. Also, I must see a one-armed breast-stroke now! Hilarious!!

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colleenzo October 24, 2012 at 11:01 am

I don’t notice food-babies so much, but I get GIGANTIC pee-babies. If I’m required to ‘hold it’ at all, I look about 4 months along.

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Really?!? I’ve never noticed this! (Although poop is a different story…)

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Kate @ Run with Kate October 24, 2012 at 12:06 pm

I love this post because it is SO true. I used to never eat dinner on a night when I was going out to drink because I wanted my stomach to be as flat as possible in my clothes. I still feel fat after a liuch that makes my belly stick out, but you’re right! It’s NORMAL! We are obsessed with flat stomachs and it’s impossible to maintain a flat stomach day in, day out!

Thank you for this post. I needed it!

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Haha – good! The more of us that realize this, the more sanity will prevail! And the less we’ll have to hear about random celebrity uteruses!

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Sarah October 24, 2012 at 1:13 pm

My tummy always looks slightly round. I had an operation about 10 years ago, where I had a cut similar to a Caesarean, and I swear my tummy went round after that. It never seems to disappear and it does bloat a little after food. When I look down, I always perceive my stomach to be sticking out. All I can say, its a good thing my bottom is at the back where I can’t see it.

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:48 pm

This: “All I can say, its a good thing my bottom is at the back where I can’t see it.” literally made me laugh out loud! And you’re not alone with the surgery thing. I have quite a few c-section-ed friends who say the same!

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Tamara October 24, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Another thing that happens(at least to me) is big thigh syndrome causing pseudo-pregnancy appearance. My thighs are about 2-3 sizes bigger in clothes than my waist, so often times I’ve got several extra inches of fabric around my waist that pooches out(if I’m not careful) and makes me look pregnant….it’s been commented on by my patient’s before(I’m not sure why they feel comfortable enough asking me if I’m pregnant, but….)

The worst thing is, we’re(hubby and I) dealing with infertility, and I can’t even GET pregnant so to be asked every other week by over-curious strangers really sucks.

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Charlotte October 24, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Oh ((hugs)) Tamara! I’m so sorry you guys are struggling with infertility right now. I remember that feeling of wanting a baby so bad and not being able to have one yet everywhere I looked I saw pregnant women. (When they were teenagers or smoking I kind of wanted to scream at them). I hope it works out for you soon and in the meantime, you know I feel your thighs! (Wow, that sounded bad). But yes, my quads are 2-3 sizes bigger than my waist too!!

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Jasmine October 25, 2012 at 9:41 am

I sympathise with you, we’ve been trying for nearly a year now and no idea if we’ll be able or not. Questions from “well-intentioned” people are starting to piss me off/make me sad, I can only imagine how frustrating it’d be when you know you can’t.

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Di October 25, 2012 at 12:07 am

I get food belly, or more aptly wheat belly. It’s taken me a few months to narrow down the culprit but it’s wheat :( I’ve elimated it from my diet and the food belly is better but not 100% gone because wheat is in so much food you don’t even realize! :( Today I had a cooked dinner with gravy, yup wheat in the gravy, now I’m sitting here bloated :(

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Kirstin October 25, 2012 at 8:38 am

Posture ladies!! Good posture can compensate for any belly bloat. Most women stand/walk with their pelvis tipped way too far forward, their spine curved the wrong way, and their core muscles loose.
I suffer from extreme muscle and facia tightness and tension headaches. A few years ago I made good posture and core strength a priority. Now my core is so well trained that at 34 weeks pregnant people can’t even tell if I’m wearing baggier clothes. (When I tip my pelvis forward, release my spine from the “C-shape”, and relax my core muscles I look every one of those 34 weeks…)

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Pam October 25, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Loved this post!!! I have always struggled with the proverbial food baby, and then I ACTUALLY GOT PREGNANT!!! I wished I had done it sooner, because instead of worrying about my belly all the time, I just showed it off for months, which felt soooo much better. Now that I’ve had the baby, for some reason the bloat doesn’t happen as often or as badly, and I am not sure if that’s hormonal or what, but it’s fine with me!

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Bek @ Crave October 26, 2012 at 6:38 am

I’ve learnt to live with my food babies! haha

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Tammi October 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm

My stomach is in a constant state of change it seems, based on everything from what and when I eat or drink to when I last exercised. I have reached the point of not really caring so much what people think. It is normal (even with proper posture), it is natural and so am I. Thanks for the post!

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