Skinny with a pot belly: the fix

“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

Jared when he was 23 years old.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.
Bad posture can make a belly. Image copyright Bony to Beastly
Lower cross syndrome versus “neutral” and proper posture. Illustration credit Bony to Beastly, The Skinny on Abs

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 aren’t necessary but might speed up 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 or watching TV late at night, which will negatively impact your hormones like melatonin. (Everybody needs 7–9 hours every night. If you want to see a quick hack, check out this guide on blue blockers.)

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.

  1. Eat more protein and real food
  2. lift weights
  3. and walk enough everyday (particularly out in the sunshine)

But I do exercise…

And if you walk, jog, or bike but don’t lift weights—it’s time to add lifting in. (You might like our True Gains program.)

If you lift weights but don’t walk or move enough—start walking outside.

They’re different types of exercise, and both walking and lifting are needed for a truly healthy, muscular, and lean body.


Summary

  • 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
    • 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 or check out True Gains.

True Gains Program

32 thoughts on “Skinny with a pot belly: the fix”

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    1. Great article for those who want to change. The only thing it didn’t seem to address was genetics. Some people just store fat in the belly more than other body parts. We’ve all seen women with large hips and butts but skinny waists, or women with huge boobs and belly but very thin legs. And we’ve all seen the middle-aged man with the “beer belly” but with thin legs and arms. This article seems to say that with these steps, you should be able to change your body composition, which is just untrue for a lot of people. I mean look at Serena Williams. Extremely strong and fit, probably eats a high protein diet, but has lots of fat in her butt and thighs. I don’t think anything will change that.

      1. Hi May,

        Genetics probably play some type of role.

        But based on the evidence I’ve seen, it seems to me that belly-fat is mainly a warning sign for developing disease, hormonal issues and/or bad food quality (vegetable oil, etc.)

        In the article, we cover how stubborn belly-fat is linked to visceral fat—which is linked to heart disease, diabetes, etc.

        I haven’t seen any evidence that it is a genetic problem (but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t play a role.)

        Women who have developing heart disease, are partially protected by estrogen.

        Once they go through menopause, their hormonal profile changes, and they can begin to store even fat in the abdominals.

        2002 study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12166365/
        2012 review: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22978257/

        The “beer belly” stereotype you mentioned is correct. Drinking over a litre (1000ml) of beer a day, was associated with a bigger waist. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19550430/

        Research also shows that big drinkers have poorer dietary choices and are less physically active. Abusing alcohol would likely be highly inflammatory—contributing to heart disease, etc.—leading to belly-fat.

        Re: Serena Williams, that is femininity (proper female hormones) to store fat in the thighs/butt. If she were to store the fat at her belly, it would indicate poor health. But the fact that she is storing fat on her butt, is a sign of good health.

        Interestingly, the butt is where women store more precious omega-3’s so they will have enough of these fats for pregnancy and breastfeeding to protect the baby. (Which is probably what drives our natural attraction.)
        https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0262407908615870
        https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/articles/201207/eternal-curves?collection=107026

        1. If belly fat indicates poor health, do you think that is true in all cases? Can you be healthy but also store a good portion of fat in your belly?

          I just wanted to highlight that some people are more predisposed to store fat in certain places.

          I understand you are taking a research-focused approach, but I thought perhaps it would be good to include at least a line in your article about this.

          1. If someone were to have belly-fat, I’d ask why they have belly-fat.

            Based on the research I’ve seen, it’s very likely—in my opinion as a layman—that there may be something else going on.

            We cover this in our skinny-fat email newsletter below in email #5, but there’s two types of fat over the belly.

            Regular “sub-cutaneous” fat, which is normal fat under the skin. And then there’s “visceral fat” around the internal organs but under the abs, and then there’s the “bridge” which is stubborn belly-fat—on top of the abs.

            The visceral fat and the stubborn belly-fat “bridge” seems to be a sign of being unhealthy.

            It seems that our bodies have a personal threshold of fat and/or activity levels, before the body starts dumping excess fat storage around our organs.

            Some people can be quite thin and already building up lots of stubborn belly-fat and visceral fat.

            Here’s how a 2012 article put it:
            https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1038/oby.2006.277

            “A consensus has emerged that fat stored in the central segment of the body is particularly damaging in that it portends greater risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and certain cancers ((1), (2), (3)). It is also accepted that insulin resistance is a related characteristic that may be an essential link between central fat and disease risk.”

            If someone were to have stubborn-belly fat but feel that they’re healthy, then I’d say that’s good news, because they could nip the problem in the bud before more serious damage is done.

            More physical activity like walking (10k+ steps), more sunshine, and better quality food can go a long way.

    2. Really frustrated

      Thank you so much Jared. This was a great article. Hard to come by info on skinny fat, and you’ve got it all here. I was curious if there could be anything else at play causing lots of belly fat. I am also underweight (5’3 and 95lbs), but my belly pops out like I am 3 months pregnant. I typically run 2-3 miles a day and lift weights 3 times a week. I’ve done some of the Beachbody workouts like P90X and p90X3, insanity, ect.. I have great muscles, but nothing I do seems to get the belly fat to budge. Any advice?

      1. I’m glad it was helpful.

        As for another possible reason, women who have gone through pregnancy might have something called diastasis recti (sometimes lovingly called a mom pooch.)

        This is when the ab muscles are stretched out and has a partial or even complete separation from between them. Sometimes there can be a bloated belly look.

        There are pelvic specialists who can help restore your pelvic/core function to fix this. It’s best done in person with an assessment. You can google “pelvic health diastasis recti your-city” if you think that describes you. (Men can also get this condition due to poor pelvic health but seems to be much more rare.)

        As for the information you’ve told me, the fact that you’re clinically underweight—as someone who has been underweight, my recommendation would be to get into the normal BMI as soon as possible.

        New research from the NIH found that negative events are still linked even to the first two tiers (18 and 19) so a true “normal” BMI might only begin at 20 at the very least. (For your height at 5’3, that’d be 115 pounds.)

        Obviously, it sounds like you’re quite fit. So I’d focus on making that weight up of mainly lean mass (muscle, glycogen, bone density, etc.)

        For your situation, that “stubborn belly-fat” may be necessary to protect you as you’re already underweight. The more muscle you have, the heavier you are, the more total bodyfat you can store while looking lean.

        For example, a woman who is:
        5’3 at 130 pounds with 18% bodyfat (ripped) objectively has 23.4 pounds of total bodyfat.

        Compared to a woman who is:
        5’3 at 95 pounds with 18% bodyfat (ripped) objectively only has 17.1 pounds of total bodyfat.

        If the woman who is 130 pounds wants to drop another 1% point to get shredded, she has nearly 7 more pounds of fat to work with compared to the light woman.

        More muscle = healthier, stronger, and allows you to hold objectively more fat while looking leaner

        If you want help with improving your BMI, I’m assuming you’re a woman based on your message, you can have a look at the Bony to Bombshell muscle-building program (I co-founded it.)

  2. I found you article very useful and will be taking your advice on board to help lose my pot belly and get stronger. My issue is that like yourself I have tendonitis in both arms and am in pain everyday. How did you strength train without causing further injury? I used to love kettle weights but I am worried about my tendinitis. I would appreciate any advice as I am desperate to get back training.

    Many Thanks

    1. Hey Marie,

      I’m so sorry to hear you’re struggling with tendonitis—it’s really terrible to be stuck with that pain. But if I can give you some hope, I think many people can realistically solve it.

      I should write an article on everything I did, but I did a whole bunch of things all at once. So maybe one thing fixed it, maybe it was multi-factoral—I don’t know.

      1. I was clinically underweight before and I fixed that. I gained weight through a calorie surplus and lifted weights.
      2. I began a DIY method of Graston manual therapy work. The idea is to break up chronic inflammation with some acute inflammation, and it seems to help. Any time it begins to flare up, I use a soft tool with soap and water. Most people prefer to go to a sports physiotherapist if you have insurance. If you want to go the DIY route, I used the handle of a butter knife, but you can google “Sidekick scraper” for a real option.
      3. I tried fixing the root cause. A big part was likely being underweight. But I also overhauled my workstation which was the root cause for me. What do you do all day that aggravates it? That’s where you should look. For me, I got a wired DXT mouse, a Goldtouch Keyboard, and made sure never to use the trackpad on my laptop. I think another part of the root cause was how I laid on my arms as I slept, so I was conscious to not lay on them anymore (where they could fall asleep.)

      As far as training goes, I think weightlifting actually helped. I think the deadlift and Romanian deadlifts really trained my problem areas. It still shocks me today, but I’m able to pull a 3-plate deadlift with double-overhand grip. (I used to believe my tendonitis meant I’d never be able to get strong with the deadlift.)

      That said, I do avoid lifts that aggravate it (mainly just reverse curls.)

      I’d take a moment and reflect on your situation:
      –What parts of my life seem to aggravate it? How can I stop doing those, or if not possible, how can I alter what I’m doing there to help?

      Then I’d try and eat lots of healthy, real food (including vitamin C, collagen, etc.) while trying the manual therapy. Does that help?

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  7. This seems like a good advice, but you didn’t say whether skinny fat people should be in a caloric deficit or surplus?

    1. Technically it’d be a calorie deficit to burn fat. Though it’s possible to gain weight in a calorie deficit.

      For example, let’s say you ate a 50% protein diet. Your plate was mainly just meat and low-energy vegetables.

      Not only would your muscles get a surplus of nutrients needed from the meat, but after accounting for diet induced thermogenesis, let’s say 30% of the energy in that protein got burnt off (and lost) as heat.

      So over the week, you might burn off 0.5 pounds of body fat (energy deficit) but gain 1 pound of lean mass from water, increased bone density, and muscle protein synthesis—putting your weight gain as 0.5 increase.

      So skinny-fat people ought to eat a high-protein diet (minimal supplements and lots of veggies) in a calorie deficit while lifting weights.

      Then once they get lean enough, they can add more energy back in, increase the volume in their lifting, and go for lean gains.

      1. This is really helpful. Being underweight struggling to gain weight whilst having really stubborn belly fat that seems to be the only thing getting bigger. Learnt I just have to kinda tackle one thing at a time first… The article is well written and got to the point. Thanks a lot

  8. I found this article very helpful so thanks for this.
    I was wondering how long it would take to get rid of the pot belly if you slowly follow the steps in this. I’ve already started doing strength training 3x a week for the past 6 weeks. I intend to start walking 10k steps a day starting tomorrow and cut out junk food from my diet.

    1. Great question Asphen.

      It depends on your starting point. For someone who is fifty pounds overweight, it’ll take them longer to get rid of their belly compared to someone who is only twenty pounds overweight.

      That said, with many people we’ve coached, we’ve found many people can get remarkable results in the 3–5 month range.

      If you were to do a body recomposition and burn 12 pounds of fat and gain 12 pounds of muscle over 3-4 months, that’d be quite the change.

      You should be able to see minor results as quickly as one week though—to know if your plan is working.

      A good rule of thumb is if your waist measurement or bodyweight is dropping, but you’re getting stronger in the gym. That would show fat-loss and a sign that you’re building muscle.

  9. I’m so thankful for this! I’ve been dieting in caloric deficit for so long trying to lose my belly fat even tho I’m already very skinny (165cm and 50kg). I couldn’t find any post like this in my mother tongue, so thank you! Gonna change it right now!

    1. Hi Amanda,

      Yeah, that’s clinically underweight—just like I was. Not a good spot to be.

      But if you follow the roadmap in this article, you should be well on your way. Wishing you luck!

  10. This is the best article I’ve found on this issue. Direct, to the point and super informational. I like the fact the you don’t have to read though countless stories of someone’s childhood, life blah blah blah like every other article. Great job, I will be referring to this daily! 👍🏼

  11. Mikayla Humphrey

    Wow, thanks. I’ve never left a comment on an article but I really appreciated how concise and well-structured this is.

  12. Hey Jared,

    Thank you for the article. I’m 6″3 and around the 13 stone mark which isn’t underweight but I am still fairly skinny everywhere except my belly. It causes me big anxiety most days. I gave up smoking 2 years ago and drinking one year ago and I am starting to change my diet over the past few months, even though I am quite the fussy eater. How do you feel about weight gainer supplements, should this be avoided completely?

    Thank you

    1. Hey James,

      Huge props on getting beyond smoking and overhauling your diet. That’s awesome!

      When I was underweight, I made my own homemade weight gainer supplement to:

      –save money
      –control the amount of carbs (I could ease in or taper them off)
      –avoid all the unhealthy stuff in them (low quality fats, additives, etc.)

      I started by adding a scoop of dextrose to have with a protein powder/creatine right before I worked out. That got upgraded to plain maltodextrin later on.

      Would I do that again today? Probably not.

      Instead of something like 50g of maltodextrin, it’d be just as easy to do 50g of raisins and/or a tablespoon of raw honey.

      It’s slightly less calories but they’re packed with anti-inflammatories and are slower digesting—helping the sugar be less likely to be stored as fat. Plus, you’d get extra minerals.

      For example, raisins have boron in them, which can help boost testosterone—which helps you to build muscle and stay lean.

      If you do end up trying the weight-gainers (or what I do instead with honey/dried fruit) make sure to keep it directly before your workout. You don’t want to take it directly before going to sleep—that’s a recipe for gaining fat. I hope that helps!

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