How to Prevent Stress From Making You Fat

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. To make matters worse, stressing about it won't help. In fact, it can be the reason why you're not losing the extra belly fat in the first place.

Stress raises cortisol levels, which can lead to the increased storage of belly fat. (Image: Deagreez/iStock/GettyImages)

"Stress causes abdominal fat, even in people who are otherwise thin," says Natasha Turner, ND, founder of Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique and author of The Supercharged Hormone Diet. The main culprit? The stress hormone cortisol. Yep, a 2000 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found a link between cortisol and increased belly fat.

But cortisol wasn't always the enemy. In ancient times, our body released cortisol to protect us from threats, says Sara Gottfried, M.D., author of the upcoming book 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. 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.

Sleep is important in the battle against belly fat. (Image: Cavan Images/Cavan/GettyImages)

1. Sleep

You need to catch your ZZZs if you want to fight stress belly. According to Turner, sleep not only lowers cortisol levels, but is 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 which is 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. So how much shut eye do you need? People who sleep seven to eight hours a night tend to accumulate less abdominal fat than those who sleep less than six hours, she says.

Creating an ideal environment for slumber is essential, adds Turner. The perfect equation for dreamland? A cool, dark room and your birthday suit. In fact, sleeping in cooler temps and au naturel can help you burn calories, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Diabetes.

2. Don’t Skip Meals

When you're desperate to shed those extra pounds, you might think skipping a meal to reduce your calories 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 Turner.

"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 binge the next time you eat, leading to a surge in blood sugar. When this happens, your body releases a flood of insulin, which stores the excess sugar as fat. And the vicious cycle goes on and on!

3. Eat Plenty of Protein

To avoid this endless loop, Turner recommends eating three to four protein-rich meals a day. "Taking in a steady supply of protein throughout the day is important because it boosts the hormones that help us burn fat and those that control our appetite and make us feel full."

To calculate how many grams of protein you should be eating daily, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2, then multiple it by 1.6. So for example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you'll need 109 grams of protein per day.

The right kind of carbs can actually help you lose belly fat. (Image: ALLEKO/iStock/GettyImages)

4. Save Carbs for Dinner

This might sound counterintuitive to everything you've ever heard about weight loss, especially with the recent low-carb craze. In fact, you've probably received the exact opposite advice — consume carbs early in the morning, so you can burn them off. But Turner says this strategy might set you up for carb cravings all day long, which is why she suggests eating only one starchy carb during your last meal of the day.

Dr. Gottfried agrees. Consumed at dinner, carbs like quinoa, sweet potatoes, and yucca, which are digested slowly and don't raise blood sugar excessively, help activate the genes of weight loss, including the ones that code for adiponectin, a hormone known to reduce belly fat and inflammation. Plus, carbs raise your serotonin levels, which help with sleep, an essential best fat-burning activity, says Turner.

5. Skip 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. But here's the real kicker: Alcohol also lowers your metabolism by more than 70 percent for 24 hours, she says. And a slower metabolism thwarts weight loss.

So, the next time you reach for a bottle of wine, consider running yourself a relaxing hot bath instead. Soaking in a tub can burn calories and help lower blood sugar, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Temperature.

6. Limit Sugar and Processed Foods

Cookies and chips are the ultimate comfort food when you're stressed. But cutting down 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 M. Apovian, M.D., 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. To keep your blood sugar stable and your hormones balanced, consume foods containing lean protein, low-glycemic carbs, plenty of fiber and healthy fats, says Turner.

7. Cheat a Little

Sure, you should eat healthy, clean foods most of the time, but indulging every now and then may do your belly fat some good. How? "Continuous, extreme caloric restriction is not an effective long-term fat-loss solution because it's simply not sustainable," says Turner. "Whether we like it or not, hormones will kick in to return the body to its status quo." So, basically, your body is super smart and will adapt to your diet, slowing down weight loss.

That's why she recommends having one cheat meal every week to keep your metabolism on its toes, so to speak. "From a physiological standpoint, this meal serves to increase your thyroid hormone and boost your metabolism." Just be sure your cheat meat doesn't turn into a cheat day (or week), which can counteract the benefits.

HIIT is your best bet when it comes to workouts to lose belly fat. (Image: Westend61/Westend61/GettyImages)

8. 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 Apovian.

Why is this good news for stress belly sufferers? Brown fat — unlike white visceral fat 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.

Turner agrees. "HIIT is the best type of training for belly fat because it elicits the perfect hormonal response: It raises growth hormone and increases adrenaline, which burn fat, without spiking cortisol." For optimal belly busting results, she suggests doing HIIT for 30 minutes, three to four times a week.

9. 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."

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.

"Squeeze a little extra activity into your day, because everything counts," says Dr. Gottfried. "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." A quick boogie session might also help reduce stress since dance increases levels of serotonin (the feel-good hormone).

10. Eliminate Gluten and Dairy

A crappy boss and credit card bills might be the most obvious sources of stress. But gluten or dairy could also be stressing you out on a physiological level, as they trigger inflammation in your gut, says Dr. Gottfried. And when your gut is irritated, it sends out stress signals, which in turn increases your risk of accumulating belly fat and may even lead to pre-diabetes.

But how do you know if gluten and dairy are causing problems? People with food allergies or sensitivities might experience things like bloating, puffy eyes, grogginess, stiffness in the hands or joint pain, says Turner. If you have any of these symptoms, consult with you physician. Together you can experiment to see if eliminating certain foods makes you feel better.

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