Even normal-weight people fight a battle with belly fat as they get older. The more the years go by, the more the waistline widens. You might think the real reason is eating too much and moving too little, and that is the case for some people. Yet even people who watch what they eat and exercise consistently can develop an unhealthy amount of fat around the waist and belly.
Belly fat is risky from a health standpoint, since a widening waistline is a marker for visceral fat, a deep type of fat that increases the risk of health problems such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. Studies even show that waist size is a better marker of future health risks, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, than body weight or body mass index (BMI). It's important to monitor your waist size. If your waist size is more than half your height, you're at a higher risk of health problems.
An Under-Appreciated Cause of Belly Fat
When you look beyond diet and exercise, there's another factor that contributes to deep belly fat. It's stress! When you're constantly stressed out, your adrenal cortex, an organ above your kidneys, produces more cortisol. This does your waistline no favours, since cortisol is a stress hormone and one that motivates you to eat more. It's high cortisol that drives people to make the wrong food choices - sugary foods, refined carbs, soft drinks, and other empty calories that cause a sharp rise in blood sugar. It's not surprising since one of cortisol's jobs is to ensure your cells have enough energy when you're under stress.
It's not just mental stress and worry that trigger a rise in cortisol and belly fat, restrictive dieting and over-exercising does it too! You think you'll get leaner by cutting calories and burning more through exercise, but your adrenal cortex tries to save your body from such drastic measures by pumping out more cortisol. At least your cells will get the glucose and energy they need short term. However, too much cortisol also suppresses your immune system and triggers muscle breakdown. Elevated cortisol can have lots of harmful effects on your body in the long run.
Even worse, cortisol and stress create a vicious cycle that's hard to break. Stress ramps up cortisol and you feel hungrier. You eat more and gain more weight. Then, you step on the scale, you see you've gained and feel more stressed out. Your adrenal cortex releases more cortisol and repeats the cycle. It's easy to see how this repeated cycle causes weight gain!
Cortisol also causes the fat you gain to be stored differently. Rather than building up on your thighs and buttocks, fat goes to your waistline and belly. You can even look at a person and see whether they have higher cortisol. Such a person has proportionally thin legs and buttocks but a large belly and upper body. Plus, a large waistline and belly indicate fat may be building up around organs such as your liver. In fact, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is an epidemic now among overweight and obese people.
Tame Belly Fat Through Stress Management
You need exercise and a healthy diet, but you also need to lower your stress level to vanquish belly fat. If you've tried everything else and still aren't getting results, stress management may be the factor you're missing. Most women struggle with belly fat after menopause, even thin women. One reason is that cortisol rises as estrogen and progesterone levels go down during midlife. Plus, menopause is a stressful time for many women and that worsens the problem.
If you exercise hard or engage in long workouts, replace some of the running and high-intensity exercise you're doing with mind-body exercises like yoga or Tai-chi. Spend more time stretching and breathing deeply. Look at the quality of your sleep. Are you tossing and turning at night? That, too, can raise your stress level and cause your body to release more cortisol. Practice mindfulness where you focus on the present moment rather than worry each minute about the future. Take some items off of your to-do list. Be kinder to yourself!
Do your body another favour. Replace calorie-cutting with a focus on nutrients. Your body needs nutrient-dense foods to reign in cortisol. Rather than starving yourself, choose more fibre-rich foods that contain adequate protein and healthy fats. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts are rich in magnesium too. That's important since magnesium helps control the body's stress response. Also, make sure you're getting enough vitamin C, as some studies show that vitamin C lowers cortisol.
The Take-Home Message
You can't blame belly fat only on what you eat and how much you exercise, stress is a factor too. So, you need a way to relax, reboot, and manage stress. It matters!
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