Is there a Link Between Stress and Fat Around the Middle?

Regardless of your gender, stress can be a major contributor to storing fat around your middle. Stress hormone cortisol encourages the body to lay down fat and increases your risk of health issues and disease. Manage stress, and you can help reduce the fat around your middle and improve your health.

What Happens to Your Body when you are Stressed?

Just getting to work can be stressful, whether it’s commuting, sitting in traffic, rushing to catch trains, delays on the road or rail network or getting children ready for school, many people start the day in a stressed state.

As soon as you become stressed your body release the stress hormone cortisol. Going back through time our genetic coding created the flight/fight response so that if we experienced danger or a threat to our life, our bodies would react quickly, our brains would stimulate the release of cortisol and adrenaline and provide our bodies with instant energy so that we could react quickly either to fight or run away. The act of flight or fight would use up this energy released.

The flight/fight response is still active today, but it cannot distinguish between the threat to our life or the stress of everyday life such as debt, financial worries, getting to appointments on time, meeting deadlines and schedules or dealing with pressures of work. Therefore, for many people, the response is constantly activated and cortisol released into the body. However, because we are not fighting or fleeing we are not using up that surge of energy released, so the fat and glucose have to be stored again.  The body restores this fat so that it is close to the liver so it can be quickly converted back into energy if needed, hence the body stores the fat around our middle. High cortisol levels remain in the blood for a while after a stressful response, the body then believes that you have used up energy to fight or flee and therefore you need to replace that energy. This can trigger strong food cravings that will have you reaching for carbohydrate-rich, sugary or fatty foods.

So if you have excess belly fat, that muffin top or belly paunch, it may be due to stress. Obviously, if you are overeating and not exercising enough, you will be carrying excess weight. According to UK nutritionist, Dr Marilyn Grenville, stress is the main cause of weight gain around our middles[i]. It also seems to resist all attempts to diet or exercise it away!

Why is Fat Around the Middle such a Cause for Concern?

Apart from being uncomfortable and clothes not fitting properly, there are serious health issues related to it.  Research has shown that excess fat around your middle can increase your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer; particularly breast cancer[ii].

Reducing your stress levels is one way to help reduce belly fat. Consider listening to relaxing music while travelling, meditating, exercising to remove the stresses of the day from the mind. Or allocate ‘you time’ daily where you can enjoy whatever activities, hobbies or rest that relaxes you, breaking the cycle of the fight/flight response and allowing hormone levels to stabilise.

Suggested Food and Exercise to Lose Fat around the Middle

Suggested guidelines from nutritionists for losing fat around the middle include:

  •  Stop ‘dieting’ – low-calorie regimes put the body into famine mode where it holds on to fat. Strict diets can physically and psychologically raise stress levels that contribute to fat storage.  Long-term use of low-fat diets and products may lead to a deficiency in good fats, essential fatty acids found in oily fish, egg yolks, nuts and seeds which help to boost metabolism. A balanced, healthy eating programme is important containing all of the key food groups.
  • Eat breakfast, so your body doesn’t register famine. Eat every 3 hours with three meals a day and healthy snacks mid-morning and mid-afternoon to stabilise energy levels.
  • Adding protein to meals slows the rate at which your stomach processes food and slows the release of carbohydrate helping to reduce roller-coaster sugar levels.
  • Avoid caffeine and sugary drinks and lower or cut out alcohol.  Caffeine drunk on an empty stomach triggers cortisol release because it goes straight into the bloodstream.
  • Magnesium calms adrenal glands and helps to regulate blood sugar so add leafy green vegetables and nuts to your diet.
  • Sit down and eat slowly and calmly when you are eating. Eating on the run tells the body time is short and creates a stress response.

And finally…..

Exercise is key for the health and well-being of the physical body and the mind, so it is important to incorporate regular exercise into your life. It can help control the fight or flight response and also contribute to maintaining a healthy body weight.


[i] Source:
[ii] Source:

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