Can you really tell what's 'wrong' with your body from the shape of your belly?

Most of us spend a large portion of every day on the internet, and as a result we are bombarded by adverts for everything imaginable.

One of the most insidious targeted advertising trends online is the relentless focus on weight loss and diet products. It’s such a big problem that TikTok recently took steps to ban misleading weight loss-based ads.

But one ad that pops up again and again has piqued our interest. It’s an advert that claims to know exactly what’s ‘wrong’ with your body by simply looking at the shape of your belly.

For example, the ad claims that if you have a belly that bloats just at the bottom it is likely to do with your hormones, whereas if your belly bloats evenly from the top all the way down, the problem is due to alcohol.

Bloating is a troublesome symptom – and should always be checked out with your doctor if it is new or persistent. But is there any truth in the claim that you can work out what’s wrong simply by looking at the shape of your stomach?

Leading registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, says we should be wary of assuming that simple diagrams can provide definitive answers about our health, because we are all unique.

‘What one of us may experience can be vastly different from someone else,’ says Rhinannon, who is the founder of Rhitrition.

‘This advert is depicting a more stereotypical view of how people with bloating can be affected by different factors. While some individuals may experience certain types of bloating, there is no one size fits all.’

Rhiannon explains that most of us have experienced being bloated – that horrible feeling when your tummy is stretched, puffy and uncomfortable.

‘It often happens after a big weekend, a large meal or over a festive occasion,’ she adds. ‘But for some people, bloating is more than an occasional inconvenience.

‘Interestingly, food in women can spend up to 50 hours in the large intestine compared to nearer 30 in men. Our stomachs can expand up to fives times its normal size, so don’t go worrying about anything unless you’re in real pain – it’s natural.

‘When it comes to our diets, you could be eating the healthiest diet in the world but if it’s not being absorbed effectively then it’s all to no avail.’

The advert suggests that there are four different types of bloating or belly fat. Alcohol belly, hormonal belly, stress belly and ‘mummy’ belly. This is what each kind of belly is meant to mean about your health:

Alcohol belly

Alcohol-based weight gain is said to lead to an overall larger belly that protrudes from higher up underneath the diaphragm.

Hormonal belly

Sudden weight gain around your lower belly, especially around your pelvic area may be a sign of belly fat caused by hormonal imbalances.

Conditions like PCOS might lead to lower belly extending out and falling low.

This weight gain happens suddenly without any apparent cause.

Stress belly

The upper belly – just below your ribs – is expanded and bulges out when you sit or you might notice it beneath your clothes.

You might feel discomfort after a tiring day.

‘Mummy’ belly

This is linked to women who have recently given birth. This kind of belly falls low, below your waistline.

You might feel a gap between the stomach muscles in your upper abdomen, which also feels loose.

But Rhiannon says that categorising our body shapes like this just isn’t that simple.

Whether it’s the distribution of fat on our bodies, or the way our stomachs look when we bloat, we are all far too individual to fit into these tidy, oversimplified categories.

‘Our digestion is far from a simple process; it involves a series of hormonal signals working throughout the gut and our nervous system,’ she explains.

‘Most evidence suggests that it takes up to 20 minutes for our brain to acknowledge when we are feeling full, which explains why when someone eats too quickly, they can eat a lot more than they really need.

‘A good way to help ease bloating is to eat well balanced meals and incorporate movement. Something to consider is that a lot of the time it is not food that is causing your bloating, but modern life, tight clothing, lack of movement, stress and lack of sleep.’

As Rhiannon said, ‘there is no one size fits all’, when it comes to our bellies. And she thinks it is more important to think about how your gut is functioning, than the shape or size of your belly.

‘A lot of our immunity is dependent upon our gut and the microbes that live within it,’ she tells us.

‘Very few gut bacteria live in the small intestine; they tend to be found towards the end of the digestive process. It is therefore essential for our health that the equilibrium in the gut remains this way.

‘If you are suffering from symptoms such as bloating, joint pain or repeated gastrointestinal infections then you may have a bacterial overgrowth or bacteria may have travelled the “wrong way” up the small intestine.

‘The bacteria inside our gut are full of useful nutrition, but we are unable to re-absorb them (like some creatures that eat their own faeces), so it’s important to keep topping up our bacteria with food.

‘Eating balanced amounts of both probiotics and prebiotics can help ensure that you have the right balance of these bacteria, which should improve your health.’

So, don’t get too fixated on targeted adverts about belly fat and bloating.

The size and shape of your stomach is likely down to a number of factors all working together, from your diet to your stress levels, hormones and even what you wear. So, trying to pinpoint a singular cause probably isn’t very useful.

If you are worried about bloating or struggling to shift persistent belly fat that you are unhappy with, speak with your doctor or a registered nutritionist for bespoke advice to suit you.

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