Is there anything more stubborn than belly fat? No matter how you try to whittle down your middle, that spare tire seems to cling to your waistline for dear life. Stressing about it won't help — and in fact, it might even be the reason that extra belly fat appeared in the first place.
The main culprit? The stress hormone cortisol. Yep, studies show a link between cortisol and increased visceral fat — the dangerous type of belly fat, sometimes called "inside fat," that surrounds internal organs in the abdomen.
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But cortisol wasn't always the enemy. In ancient times, our bodies released cortisol to help protect us from threats, says Sara Gottfried, MD, author of Brain Body Diet.
"A rise in cortisol increases the body's desire for sugar so it can feed the muscles to help us run from danger. However, the danger we face today is an angry boss or gridlock on the freeway. Except cortisol still reacts in the same way, even though we don't need to run anywhere," she explains. "In fact, we sit at our desks, so the glucose released by our body to prep the muscles to run gets stored as fat by insulin."
Unfortunately, stress — and the body's triggered response to it — is unavoidable. So, what can you do to mitigate its effect on your waistline? Read on for expert tips to beat the stress-induced belly bulge.
1. Make Sleep a Priority
You need to catch your zzzs if you want to fight stress. Quality slumber not only has the power to lower cortisol levels, but it also produces growth hormone and melatonin — fat-fighting hormones that support healthy muscle mass. A good night's rest also helps maintain levels of leptin, a hormone that's important for healthy appetite control.
Plus, when you don't get enough sleep, you tend to reach for sugary foods to give you a quick boost of energy, says Dr. Gottfried, which just adds to the belly fat dilemma.
How much shut-eye do you need? People who sleep fewer than five hours a night are roughly a third likelier to gain weight than those who sleep seven hours a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. So make sure you're getting the recommended amount, which is seven to nine hours for most adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
2. Don't Skip Meals
When you're desperate to shed those extra pounds, you might think skipping a meal to reduce your calorie intake is a good idea. Don't do it!
"If you skip meals or wait too long between meals, your body experiences more dips and spikes than it should, and that throws your hormones out of whack," says Natasha Turner, ND, founder of Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique and author of The Supercharged Hormone Diet. "Specifically, waiting too long to eat between meals causes a blood sugar drop, which triggers a stress response in your body, which in turn releases cortisol and causes your energy to crash hard."
The result? You may overeat the next time you nosh, causing a surge in blood sugar. When this happens, your body releases a flood of insulin, which stores that excess sugar as fat. (Talk about a vicious cycle!)
3. Choose Your Carbs Wisely
Contrary to popular belief, carbs aren't inherently bad. But not all carbs are created equal, either. Processed or refined carbs (think: white bread and white rice) tend to spike your blood sugar. And since they lack the fiber to fill you up, they're easier to overeat.
Complex carbs like quinoa, sweet potatoes and yucca are digested slowly and don't raise blood sugar excessively, says Dr. Gottfried. They also help activate the genes of weight loss, including the ones that code for adiponectin, a hormone known to reduce belly fat and inflammation.
4. Nix the Booze
After a long, stressful week, sipping on a cocktail might be your go-to way to unwind. But if you're struggling with belly fat, booze will just make things worse. "Alcohol raises cortisol levels, which will impact your blood glucose and insulin levels," says Dr. Gottfried.
While there's no evidence that alcohol slows your metabolism, or that one drink now and then will give you a wider waistline, drinking might increase your appetite, and excessive drinking is linked to higher blood pressure and blood sugar.
So the next time you're tempted to reach for that glass of wine, consider running yourself a relaxing hot bath instead. Soaking in a tub can burn calories and may help lower blood sugar, according to a small, March 2017 study in Temperature involving lean and overweight men.
5. Limit Sugar and Processed Foods
Cookies and chips are the ultimate comfort food when you're stressed. But cutting down on junk food is a must for anyone trying to beat belly fat.
Not only do highly processed foods contain heaps of added sugar and lots of empty calories without any nutritional benefits, they also contain endocrine disruptors like preservatives that can cause hormonal imbalances, says Caroline Apovian, MD, an obesity and diabetes researcher and professor of diabetes and endocrinology at Boston University School of Medicine.
This may cause a chain reaction leading to more visceral fat, the deep fatty tissue that lies beneath your abdominal wall, which can result in a host of health problems, including metabolic syndrome — a group of symptoms that signal an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
"Reducing your sugar intake and removing processed foods will reset blood sugar and insulin," says Dr. Gottfried.
6. Do High-Intensity Interval Training
HIIT — which consists of short spurts of very intense cardio requiring maximum effort — is super effective at targeting belly fat. When you do HIIT exercises, your muscles "talk" to adipose tissue, turning white fat into brown fat, says Dr. Apovian.
Why is this good news for stress-belly sufferers? Brown fat — unlike the white visceral fat that's deep inside the belly — burns calories. So the more you have, the more you burn. Plus, "HIIT exercises make your muscles hungry for glucose, which helps to regulate insulin levels, improve insulin resistance and build muscle," says Dr. Gottfried.
7. Find Small Ways to Stay Active
Not every bit of exercise you do needs to be high intensity to beat belly fat, says Dr. Gottfried. "Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is all the ways you burn extra calories through fidgeting, pacing or parking farther away so you walk more — and it adds up," she says.
Bonus: Even these small forms of exercise can help relieve stress by boosting production of feel-good brain chemicals, giving your mind a rest from life's daily stressors and improving your overall sense of well-being, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Dr. Apovian agrees: NEAT can increase your brown fat, which helps you scorch more calories. So, how do you make the most of NEAT? Essentially, take every opportunity to get your body moving.
"Try smaller bits of exercise, like pacing while you talk on the phone or taking a two-minute dance break while you brew your coffee," suggests Dr. Gottfried. Yes, a quick boogie session counts!
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8. Get Tested for Food Allergies or Sensitivities
A crappy boss and credit card bills might be the most obvious sources of stress. But if you have an underlying food allergy or sensitivity — to, say, gluten or dairy — your gut could be stressed out on a physiological level, Dr. Gottfried says. And when your gut is irritated, it sends out inflammation signals, which in turn increases your risk of accumulating belly fat and may even lead to pre-diabetes.
But how do you know if a food is causing problems? People with food allergies or sensitivities might experience symptoms like bloating, puffy eyes, grogginess, stiffness in the hands or joint pain. If you have any of these symptoms, consult your doctor. Together, you can experiment to see if eliminating certain foods makes you feel better.
- National Sleep Foundation: "Does Sleeping Longer or Shorter Impact Your Weight?"
- Diabetes: "Temperature-acclimated Brown Adipose Tissue Modulates Insulin Sensitivity in Humans"
- Temperature: "The Effect of Passive Heating on Heat Shock Protein 70 and Interleukin-6: A Possible treatment Tool for Metabolic Diseases?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Exercise and Stress: Get Moving to Manage Stress"
- Public Health Nutrition: "Gender-specific Relationships Between Alcohol Drinking Patterns and Metabolic Syndrome: the Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2008"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How much protein do you need every day?"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Much Sleep Do I Need?"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.