Category: Belly Fat Articles

Why You Gain Belly Fat When You’re Stressed

“I’m still looking for this kitchen in which abs are made…do you know where it is?”

That’s what one client said to me during a discussion in which she informed me that her belly was fat and nothing she did would get rid of it and she was gross and disgusting.

The wine we were having (this was a friend visit, NOT a workout – although I’m not against boozercise under the right circumstances) was not helping our bellies, but it was definitely helping our attitudes.

Look, I don’t want anyone out there to feel gross and disgusting, but I know what it’s like when you do and I’m not going to lie – It’s not easy to get rid of – the feeling AND the belly fat. If it were, I would not be having a wine-versation about gross and disgusting bellies, nor would I be writing this article.

And yes, diet is one of the most important aspects of losing belly fat…we’ll get to that. But there are other things we need to work on too and working on All of Them At The Same Time can make your eyeballs fall out of your head, roll across the floor and become your cat’s next favorite toy.

We don’t want that.

So let’s deal with things one thing at a time.

One major contributor to belly fat is:


You need stress management. I know – the word management is an ugly one, so let’s just say stress management is all about pulling your s**t together.

In a previous article, I talked about how to tame your stress in several easy (okay, not easy, but worth trying) steps. In this one, we’re digging deeper to find out what stress is, what it does to your mind and body and, most important, how it affects your belly fat.

Stress – What the Heck IS It?

The dictionary says that stress is ‘mental, emotional, or physical strain or tension.’

Well, that covers just about everything we see, hear, do, say, think, feel or dream about.


Another definition is – The body’s reaction to a change that requires you to adjust or respond. Thanks Cleveland Clinic

That still means every damn thing causes some kind of stress. Turning the lights on, going outside, coming inside, listening to your husband snore like a chainsaw caught in a motorcycle inside a garbage truck, or when your cat sticks his nose in your armpit (perhaps that’s just me). 

But let’s narrow that definition to what we all really want to deal with:

Chronic Stress and Belly Fat

Here’s what I want you to know about chronic stress because some of it has nothing to do with your mind…it has to do with your body. Like all the physiological things going on inside that you can’t measure, track, or even see.

First, let’s talk about what stress feels like.

Symptoms of Chronic Stress

According to Healthline here are just SOME of the symptoms of stress:

  • Acne (been there, y’all)
  • Headaches, especially tension headaches
  • Pain – Some studies show that cortisol might be associated with chronic pain
  • Getting sick a lot – your immune system isn’t in the best shape when you’re stressed
  • Low energy
  • Insomnia
  • Zero sex drive
  • Stomach issues – digestive stuff, GI stuff like heartburn and acid reflux – all the fun ones
  • Changes in appetite – either eating way more or way less
  • Depress and anxiety
  • Sweating

I think I’ve had about all of these symptoms at one time or another and you can see why this makes life really uncomfortable. So, let’s get to the real deal now.

What Chronic Stress Does to Your Mind and Body (aka – It’s NOT YOUR FAULT)

Here’s what happens when your body is under chronic stress: 

  1. When you’re stressed out, your brain (part of the hypothalamus if you want to get technical) secretes a corticotrophin-releasing hormone. Stay with me here…nevermind – we’re going to call it CRH, okay?
  2. This hormone has a LOT of things to do in your body and is the main driver of the stress hormone system. 
  3. Once this hormone is triggered, it’s like s**t rolling downhill…it triggers other hormones.
  4. These hormones get into your bloodstream to your adrenal glands where…tada! 
  5. Your body secrets cortisol.

The stress hormone.

Let’s Talk About Cortisol for a Sec

You’ve heard about fight or flight, correct? Well, this was honed in our bodies back in the day when we were hunters and gathers and had to be on alert ALL THE TIME.

Fast forward to now and here’s the thing – Your body can’t tell the difference between a saber tooth tiger chasing you or the sight of your boss walking past your cubicle.

It reacts the same way every time – fight? Or flight? 

Now to the crux of the matter. Weight gain and stress.

Here’s Weight Gain Problem #1:

Stress is related to weight gain because in order to fight or flee you need energy. Cortisol is responsible for helping you to receive the energy you need, primarily by increasing your blood sugar. 

It does this by converting protein to sugar, then releasing stored glucose in your liver. When blood sugar levels are high, insulin (the fat-storing hormone) is secreted in order to transport the blood sugar to the brain and working muscles. 

Here is the catch: the muscles aren’t working because there is no physical stress, only emotional. You’re not moving, so the excess sugar you just secreted (and probably replaced in the form of yummy carbs, more on that later)  in the form of carbohydrates gets stored as fat. 

Here’s Weight Gain Problem #2:

Okay, so all the hormones are stimulated, excess sugar is running around in your body and you aren’t physically using that sugar.

Now? The real s**tshow starts. All of these hormonal reactions stimulate your cravings for comfort foods!

See how your body is driving this train? It’s. Not. Your. Fault. Take a deep breath and say it with me – It’s. Not. My. Fault. 

It’s physiology driving the cravings and, as one study shows, eating comfort foods “may directly result in reduction of the negative effects of the chronic stressor.”

Yep – Eating that mac ‘n cheese actually reduces the negative side effects of your boss or your kids or your life or your snoring husband or whatever is totally stressing you out.

That’s why we do it. That’s why we want to eat crap when we’re stressed the eff out.

Here’s Weight Gain Problem #3:

The fun doesn’t start there, y’all. Because here we are – Stress starts, the hormones break free, your flight or fight system kicks in, your body is producing excess sugar, your hormones are begging you for comfort food so you can feel better and….

All those excess calories? Go right to your belly.

Cortisol actually stimulates fat storage, especially around the belly. According to, “There is little doubt that increased stress and/or cortisol can cause increased abdominal fat and weight gain.

Why does this happen? Because our bodies protect us in times of stress by holding onto fat. 

What’s Next

So…you know what’s going on with your body. What next? How do you break the cycle of stress?

Your first step is to understand where you are in the stress-cortisol continuum. Start with this:

Learning to balance your emotional needs.

Click on the link above and download the free PDF from Take some time to go through the worksheet because your first step to reducing stress AND belly fat is figuring out how to take better care of yourself. That’s the first thing you do. More to come!


Dallman MF, Pecoraro NC, la Fleur SE. Chronic stress and comfort foods: self-medication and abdominal obesity. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 2005;19(4):275-280. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2004.11.004

Heckman W. Stress, Cortisol and Abdominal Fat. The American Institute of Stress.


Why Your Waist Circumference Matters 100x More Than What You Weigh

How often do you step on the scale? A lot of us do it every single day and you probably do what I do: You step on it, you squint at the number, you feel like s**t and you shove it back under the bed hoping it will be more cooperative tomorrow.

Do you wish you could totally ditch your scale?

You may have this weird kind of relationship with your “weight”. I mean, it doesn’t define you (obviously). Yet, it does sometimes, doesn’t it? It can determine how the start of each day feels.

But, here’s something to think about: Your weight only matters to a certain extent.

Let’s look at your waist circumference (well…you look at yours and I’ll look at mine).

Your Waist Circumference (AKA “Belly Fat”)

You’ve probably heard of body shapes, right? Like we’re all shaped like some kind of fruit like an “apple” or a “pear”? The apple is kinda round around the middle (you know – belly fat-ish, kinda beer belly-ish) and the pear is rounder around the hips/thighs.

THAT is what we’re talking about here.

Do you know which shape is associated with a higher risk of sleep apnea, blood sugar issues (e.g. insulin resistance and diabetes) and heart issues (high blood pressure, blood fat, and arterial diseases)?

Yep – that apple!

And it’s not because of the fat you can see under the skin (aka subcutaneous fat) that you may refer to as a “muffin top”. The health risk is actually due to the fat inside the abdomen covering the liver, intestines and other organs there.

This internal fat is called “visceral fat” and that’s where a lot of the problem actually is. It’s this “un-pinchable” fat.

The reason the visceral fat can be a health issue is because it releases fatty acids, inflammatory compounds, and hormones that can negatively affect your blood fats, blood sugars, and blood pressure.

And the apple-shaped people tend to have a lot more of this hidden visceral fat than the pear-shaped people do.

That’s why your scale weight isn’t always the most important thing to look at. Where your fat is actually stored is more important than how much you weigh.

Am I an Apple or a Pear?

It’s pretty simple to find out if you’re in the higher risk category or not. The easiest way is to just measure your waist circumference with a measuring tape. You can do it right now.

Here’s how

  1. Starting at the top of your hip bone, bring the tape around your body level with your belly button.
  2. Keep the tape straight – Look in the mirror to make sure it is and don’t pull it too tight.
  3. Inhale and then exhale. At the end of the exhale, make a note of the number on the tape.
  4. Pour yourself a glass of wine if needed.

Women, if your waist is 35” or more you could be considered to have “abdominal obesity” and be in the higher risk category. Pregnant ladies are exempt, of course. For men, the number is 40”.

Of course, this isn’t a diagnostic tool. There are lots of risk factors for chronic diseases. Waist circumference is just one of them.

If you have concerns definitely see your doctor.

Tips for helping reduce some belly fat:

  • Eat more fiber. Fiber can help reduce belly fat in a few ways. First of all, it helps you feel full and also helps to reduce the amount of calories you absorb from your food. Some examples of high-fiber foods are brussel sprouts, flax and chia seeds, avocado, and blackberries.
  • Add more protein to your day. Protein reduces your appetite and makes you feel fuller longer. It also has a high TEF (thermic effect of food) compared with fats and carbs and ensures you have enough of the amino acid building blocks for your muscles. Chicken, fish, tofu, yogurt – stuff like that.
  • Nix added sugars. This means ditch the processed sweetened foods especially those sweet drinks (even 100% pure juice).
  • Move more. Get some aerobic exercise. Lift some weights. Walk and take the stairs. It all adds up.
  • Stress less. Seriously! Elevated levels in the stress hormone cortisol have been shown to increase appetite and drive abdominal fat.
  • Get more sleep. Try making this a priority and seeing how much better you feel (and look).

Recipe (High fiber side dish): Garlic Lemon Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Serves 4

1 lb Brussels sprouts (washed, ends removed, halved)
2-3 cloves of garlic (minced)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
dash salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400F.

In a bowl toss sprouts with garlic, oil, and lemon juice. Spread on a baking tray and season with salt and pepper.

Bake for about 15 minutes. Toss.

Bake for another 10 minutes.

Serve and Enjoy!

Tip: Brussel sprouts contain the fat-soluble bone-loving vitamin K. You may want to eat them more often.