A little extra squish around your middle usually means you've gained weight — although in a few cases, you can have a squishy stomach after weight loss. Because the squish test returns ambiguous results, take a hint from the pros and use more standardized methods to track your weight loss progress.
Usually, an increase in the "flab factor" signals that you've gained weight — either extra body fat or bloating from extra water weight. However, in some cases you might find your stomach feeling flabbier or floppier after a drastic weight loss; that is typically because of the loose skin that's no longer being filled out by body fat.
Decoding the Squish
In most cases, a squishy stomach signals that you've gained weight. That extra squish comes from an increase in subcutaneous fat, which is the fat layer that lives just underneath your skin.
Your body needs a certain amount of fat to remain healthy, but having too much can represent a risk to your health; the American Council on Exercise notes that 10 to 13 percent is considered the bare essential amount of body fat for women, while 2 to 5 percent is the bare minimum for men. Anywhere up to 31 percent is considered acceptable for women, or 24 percent for men.
When you end up with too much body fat, it's because you've taken in more energy (in the form of calories) than you've used. Your body stores that extra energy as fat, keeping it around so that it'll be available for later use. To get rid of that stored body fat you must reverse the ratio, using more energy than you take in. Or, to bring it back to calories, you must burn more calories than you eat.
If you feel like you've gone from fit to flabby overnight, it's also possible that the extra squish around your middle is from retained water. This can happen for a number of reasons, from food choices to hormone fluctuations, medication side effects and medical conditions. If this type of bloating is a sudden or persistent problem for you, your doctor can help you identify the cause.
A Possible Exception
There are two possible exceptions to the "squishy middle equals weight gain" scenario. One of the most interesting involves the difference between visceral and subcutaneous fat. While you've already met subcutaneous fat, the squishy layer that sits just under your skin, visceral fat is a little different. It accumulates deep inside your abdominal cavity, padding the space between your internal organs.
Again, a certain amount of visceral fat is healthy — but as Harvard Health Publishing points out, having too much visceral fat is linked to even more serious health problems than subcutaneous abdominal fat.
Harvard also points out that the abdominal fat found in the "apple" body shape is mostly visceral. If you've managed to reduce your visceral fat levels, it's possible that you'll notice some increased squish around your midsection as your subcutaneous fat — remember, that's the squishy stuff — becomes more noticeable.
Although any calorie deficit is useful for reducing visceral fat, researchers have found that high-intensity workouts, especially high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, are useful for reducing this dangerous type of fat. For example, a meta-analysis published in the February 2018 issue of the New Zealand journal Sports Medicine found that HIIT had a particularly significant effect on reducing visceral fat mass.
What About Loose Skin?
The second exception to the idea that a squishy middle signals weight gain has to do with your skin. If you go through a sudden or drastic weight loss, or simply didn't fare well in the genetic lottery for skin elasticity, you may notice your belly getting squishier as you lose weight. That's because your skin had to stretch out to make room for that body fat.
Usually, as you lose weight your skin shrinks back to its normal size. But if it's been stretched too much or simply isn't elastic enough, the loose skin that remains after weight loss could easily be interpreted as "squishy fat" — especially if your skin was previously stretched taut from the extra weight.
In this situation you could say that soft belly fat is a good sign, because that squishy fat means weight loss. But as always, things are a little more complicated than that — if only because now you have to decide what to do about that extra skin.
Losing weight gradually can help by giving your skin more time to gradually return to its normal shape, and building muscle with weight training can help fill out some of that extra jiggle while also speeding your weight loss along. More good news: Although people don't talk about this aspect of extreme weight loss much, rest assured that if you're dealing with a little extra skin in certain places, you're very much not alone.
Some people choose to simply accept the extra skin or even wear it as a badge of pride — after all, it signals that you've successfully made an enormous change in your lifestyle and health. As the Obesity Action Coalition points out, losing even 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can have enormous health benefits; losing more can prolong your life by years.
Other options include wearing compression garments — both to create a shape you're more comfortable with and to restrict chafing — and asking a physician about having the extra skin surgically removed.
Measuring Your Progress
Clearly, simply "pinching an inch" around your midsection to measure your weight loss progress is ambiguous at best. Your clothes don't have opinions about your body, so tracking how they fit is one way of more objectively gauging progress along your weight loss journey. Another objective — and useful — method of gauging fat loss is by taking circumference measurements at particular points around your body.
All you need is a flexible measuring tape, a mirror to make sure you have the tape oriented correctly, and sometimes a helping hand from a friend. You can measure your waist circumference, or the ratio of your waist circumference to your hips. As explained by Harvard Health Publishing, a waist circumference of 35 inches or more, or a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.9 or higher, signals a high health risk for women. For men, a waist circumference of 40 inches or more, or a waist-to-hip ratio of 1.0 or more, signals high risk.
You can also track circumference at other points on your body — the upper arms and thighs are common choices — to see how those measurements change over time. A pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat, so even if you're putting on extra muscle you should see those measurements shrink over time as you decrease your body fat.
And finally, if you have access to a properly trained fitness professional, she can help you take skin-fold measurements at various points on your body, including your belly. Because there is some inevitable variance in results, this method is most useful for tracking relative progress over time, rather than pinpointing a very specific measure of your body fat percentage. Have the same trainer always take your measurements if possible, using the same calipers; this helps ensure that the results are consistent in relation to each other.
- American Council on Exercise: "Percent Body Fat Calculator: Skinfold Method"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It"
- Sports Medicine: "Effect of High-Intensity Interval Training on Total, Abdominal and Visceral Fat Mass: A Meta-Analysis"
- Obesity Action Coalition: "Benefits of 5-10 Percent Weight Loss"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Why Worry About Your Waistline?"