“How do I get rid of my belly without losing what little weight that I have?”
This is a great question. What do you do if you’re thin, but you’ve got a pot belly? (Being skinny with fat on the belly is sometimes called being skinny-fat.)
The standard advice given to bigger folk with a pot belly is to eat less food to lose weight.
Not only is that not very helpful, but if you’re skinny and follow that advice, that may make you much too light while feeling even weaker and more tired.
This is because most people become weaker when they eat less, and for a bigger person with much more muscle, to begin with, it doesn’t matter to them.
But for someone that is skinny with a belly, they need to hold onto as much good weight, like muscle mass, as they possibly can.
There are three problems we’re dealing with here:
- being skinny
- having a pot belly
- postural issues that could be emphasizing the belly
The good news is that you can solve these issues all at once, and you can do it quickly. It’s possible to radically overhaul your body in just 30 days—with results so good that randoms on the internet will call your before and after photos BS.
But first, we need to understand how we ended up here, skinny with a pot belly, to understand what to do to fix it.
Why someone can be skinny with a pot belly
Even though I was a young man, and only twenty-three years old, was not a glowing example of health. I was 6 feet tall (183cm) and weighed 130 pounds (59kg), making me dangerously underweight. I had chronic tendonitis in both arms, and I was missing a patch of hair in my beard (alopecia). And even though I was dangerously underweight, I had fat covering my stomach with no visible abs. My ribs were visible, but no abs.
I was skinny because:
- I was not eating enough protein daily. Protein is a category of amino acids, and these amino acids are the building blocks of muscle. When you eat a lot of protein, that is one of the main ways of activating “muscle protein synthesis.” Muscle protein synthesis is the process of taking the protein you’ve eaten and directing it towards building muscle. Your body will always use the protein you eat first for the critical processes. So if you don’t eat enough protein every day = not enough muscle.
- I was not challenging my body with resistance. I wasn’t using my muscles, so they didn’t need to stay the same size and strength, let alone become stronger. The odd hike once a year or snowboarding session once or twice in the winter wasn’t enough to tell my body to keep my muscle, let alone build some. Lifting weights is a form of creating resistance for your muscles to fire against. Even someone’s body weight can be enough resistance for beginners (see our free bodyweight workout here.) Resistance training is another way to activate “muscle protein synthesis,” the process of building muscle. Plus, it’ll ramp up your appetite to make you eat more protein.
I had fat on my belly, even though I was underweight, because:
- I was too “sedentary,” meaning I was too inactive, and that builds up visceral and abdominal fat. Since the age of 14, I was either sitting at the computer or gaming all my waking hours. (I ran a gaming website with a small team in my free time, and my summer job during high-school and university was working as a web designer.) Research shows that the more inactive we are, the more fat build-up around our organs, known as visceral fat (study). This is the “bad” kind of fat, as opposed to the subcutaneous fat, the fat that sits underneath our skin. Inactivity is also linked to having more fat on the abdominals. Moving more, like walking, also improves blood flow, which can help mobilize fats in more stubborn areas, like the gut, to get used for energy.
- I was eating too many processed foods. I was always eating chips, cookies, and drinking soda pop like Coke and Dr. Pepper. My body seemed to adapt my appetite to match my level of physical activity, so I didn’t become overweight. But some types of fats are more preferentially stored in the belly (study). So even if I wasn’t overeating to the point that my weight was increasing, many of the foods I was eating ended up at my belly. Plus, eating processed foods meant that I wasn’t getting enough vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fibre for my body to work properly and feel good. Not feeling good = not moving. It would become a vicious cycle. Many good foods like garlic, arugula, fruits, and berries, contain anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidants, and pro-heart health compounds. For example, arugula is a great source of nitrates that will help produce nitric oxide, helping with blood flow.
I had a protruding belly, due to bad posture, because:
- I was skinny. Skinny people have weak core and stabilizer muscles that don’t have the strength to hold the body properly. When the pelvis tilts forward, this pushes the belly out, and this is called lower cross syndrome or anterior pelvic tilt.
- I sat too much. Our bodies adapt to our activities. A swimmer will develop a body with elevated shoulder blades, and a baseball pitcher will get flatter collarbones/clavicles (Eric Cressey). Someone who sits too much will adapt to sitting. So even when they’re standing, it looks like they’re sitting. Their pelvis tilts forward due to tight hip flexors, the way it would be while they sit. For that person to stay balanced as they stand, their upper-back will need to round forward, with their head coming forward. This is called forward head syndrome, and it can cause all sorts of neck pain. Not only that, but it can also make your jaw drop and pull back, due to stretched muscles, giving you a weaker jaw appearance in the long-run.
The road map to fixing being skinny with a pot belly
- Overhaul your diet to include more protein and mainly whole foods. The protein will give your body the building blocks it needs to build muscle. The nutrition from whole foods will ensure that you feel your best, helping you to move more. A realistic goal is for 80% of what you eat to be real food that you prepare yourself, allowing yourself up to 20% to be more processed.
- Start doing resistance training. Your own body weight may be enough to challenge your body to grow bigger for a few weeks—you can see our free bodyweight workout here. Eventually, once you’ve built up some muscle, you will need to use weights to continue to push your body to get stronger.
- Become less sedentary. This will help with insulin sensitivity, allowing the foods you eat to either help build muscle or to get burnt off and used as energy. This will also help with cardiovascular health that will help with blood flow to burn that dangerous visceral and abdominal fat. It’s hard to care about cardiovascular health today if only helps some distant version of you avoid a heart attack in three decades. So here’s a more immediate reward. If you’re a man, better cardio health will help with erectile dysfunction and could help protect you from crown balding (vertex balding, study). If you’re a woman, better cardio health will help with sexual arousal, satisfaction, and orgasm (systemic review).
- Do the right drills to reclaim your tall, straight posture faster. Postural drills can speed up getting your natural, tall, posture back. For example, if you’ve been sitting for a while, your abs will be weak, and your ribs will be tilted up, and your stomach sticks out. Learning how to breathe from your diaphragm, exhaling to get those ribs down, will help you to feel your abs turn on (See this video from Marco for an idea). Over time, breathing properly will help to flatten the look of your stomach through postural improvements. (Walking more and a good resistance training program will also help with your posture.)
How do I put this roadmap into action?
- Eat 1g of protein per body weight pound. No, that’s not a typo. You will need to eat enough protein to live (create red blood cells, hair, skin, organ regeneration), and then even more protein to build muscle. This will help you get more strength and feeling unstoppable. For example, a 140-pound man might want to eat 40–50g of protein with every meal for 30 days. We help teach people realistically accomplish this, even with the smallest stomachs. There are simple tricks like getting a good protein powder, and it can be a game-changer in terms of speeding up results because 30g of protein can be mixed with water and drank in less than a minute.
- Challenge your muscles with resistance training 3x a week. Many people try to do resistance workouts on Monday–Wednesday–Friday at the same time of day. A good workout will also teach your body good movement patterns, which will strengthen your postural muscles. For a free bodyweight workout that will help with muscle and posture, one for men and one for women, check out our overview here.
- Walk 10,000 steps a day (and try to get most of your steps outside.) Sitting isn’t bad—but always sitting is. I’ve found it helpful to have an objective goal of how sedentary I’ve been. There’s nothing magical about 10,000 steps aside from the fact that it’s in the range of what a healthy range of movement is every day. After buying a cheap but accurate $20 pedometre (step counter) and doing 10,000 steps daily, I’ve felt much healthier, more energetic, and the stubborn belly fat finally melted off. The first week of hitting 10,000 steps every day was difficult. The second week I was starting to feel energetic, and the third week, I was trying to find ways to keep this up for good. Walking more will also challenge your body to become more efficient at walking—meaning you’ll become more upright and develop better posture. Instead of your body adapting to sit better, it’ll start adapting to walking better. As for walking outside, bright light has been found to help with cardio health (study), and you’d get all the benefits of some vitamin D production (study, article). And if you eventually want to get bigger and go from being skinny to average in weight, walking and moving more as you eat more is one of the key ways to prevent fat gain as you bulk.
- Supplements can speed up and improve results. For example, garlic can help with heart health, improve nitric oxide signaling, lower blood pressure, and boost the immune system (study, study). But even for the biggest garlic fan, it’s difficult to have some during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So, you could take aged garlic as a supplement in pill form to get all the benefits without needing to prep and cook it all the time. In another example, drinking green tea is a healthy daily choice. But it may take years of consistently drinking it to be rewarded with its benefits. You can take green tea supplements to increase the dosage, with the supplements sometimes being as simple as putting tea leaves in a pill form. Research shows that the compounds in green tea will help improve insulin sensitivity, burning fat, and blood flow. (study, study, study)
There are many other reasons for someone to struggle with stubborn belly fat. One reason could be not getting enough sleep, which will impact your hormones (everybody needs 7–9 hours every night.)
And there are countless other tricks to try, that aren’t as powerful but can still help a bit when doing enough of them. One example is to drink whole milk instead of skim milk. There are compounds like CLA that are only found in the fats of dairy, that are not in the skim versions. CLA is a fat-burning, fat-prevention, and anti-cancerous compound. (article)
But focusing on the fundamentals will get you the bulk of the results.
Eat more protein and real food, lift weights, and walk enough everyday.
But I do exercise…
And if you walk, jog, or bike but don’t lift weights—it’s time to add lifting in.
If you lift weights but don’t walk or move enough—start walking.
They’re different types of exercise, and both walking and lifting are needed for a truly healthy, muscular, and lean body.
- Skinny people with a pot belly should not follow conventional weight-loss advice, since eating less food will make them weigh even less and weaker due to muscle loss.
- Common reasons for people to become skinny is:
- Not eating enough protein to support muscle growth
- Not doing resistance exercise, such as bodyweight or weightlifting
- Common reasons for someone to have belly fat even when skinny is:
- Being too sedentary (inactive), which builds visceral fat around the organs and abdominal fat.
- Eating too many processed foods.
- Common reasons for someone’s posture to make their belly push out even further
- Being skinny, which would make their core and stabilizer muscles weak.
- Sitting too much, making their body adapt to sitting, so when they stand their belly pushes out, and the head moves forward for balance
- The roadmap for fixing all three problems:
- Overhaul your diet to eat more protein and mainly whole food (instead of processed food.)
- Eat 1g of protein per bodyweight pound that you want to weigh
- Begin resistance training
- Do 3x resistance workouts a week, either using your body weight or by lifting weights
- Become more active and less sedentary
- Try walking 10,000 steps every day, no breaks, for thirty days.
- Do simple breathing and postural drills for faster results on the posture issue
- It’s your choice whether or not to look into supplements that support heart health, improve insulin sensitivity, and are naturally fat-burning
If you’d like more guidance on this topic, be sure to join our newsletter below. We’ll be announcing a new program to help fix this soon, along with continuing to share our best tips on becoming stronger, leaner, and healthier.