Is your waistline slowly expanding? Can you no longer do up your jeans? Have you got that extra bit of fat around your belly?
It is common to put on fat around the middle as we get older, and particularly for women after menopause. But why is this? And can you do anything about it?
Fat around the middle is down to stress
Putting on fat around the middle is down to stress and cortisol. As we talked about in our blog last week, cortisol is the stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol helps your body deal with stressful situations, among other roles. But when the stress becomes chronic or continuous, it brings unwanted effects. One of the unwanted effects is excess fat stored around the middle. This can create the classic apple shape that many people experience.
Cortisol and stress
Excess cortisol levels are brought about by stress, but as we explored in the blog last week this can be due to psychological stress or physiological stress.
Psychological stress is worrying about things. A stressful job, family stress, money stress can all bring about a long-term and unwanted increase in cortisol production.
Physiological stress can come from the way we eat, particularly from blood sugar fluctuations. This generally comes from eating too much sugar and refined carbohydrates, and is affected by what we eat as well as when we eat.
When you eat sugary foods or white refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread, white pasta, white rice), your blood sugar rises rapidly. Your body responds by producing insulin. The blood sugar spikes but then drops rapidly. Wholegrain carbohydrates, by contrast, release their energy slowly.
Drops in blood sugar result in cortisol production. If your diet is high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, the blood sugar drops result in excess cortisol production.
Cortisol stores body fat
So, stress produces cortisol. And cortisol makes your body store fat. Let’s look at how this can happen.
Firstly, when you eat extra calories that your body doesn’t need they are converted to triglycerides, a type of fat. Cortisol mobilizes triglycerides from storage and relocates them to the cells deep in the belly.
Secondly, the cortisol caused by stress breaks down muscle tissue into glucose. But if you don’t immediately burn off the glucose through exercise, the excess turns to fat and is stored – around the belly.
What’s more, fat cells in the belly produce cortisol themselves, adding to the excess cortisol already in circulation.
There’s more than one type of belly fat
Fat around the middle takes two different forms. Subcutaneous fat is the more visible fat just below the skin. The fat you can pinch around your belly. A little is healthy. It helps to provide padding for your bones and muscles, insulate from the cold and is an energy reserve.
Visceral fat is found much deeper in the belly, around your blood vessels and organs. A small amount is vital for your health. However, excess visceral fat can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. When you have a lot of visceral fat it can make your belly protrude.
While noticing subcutaneous fat is more often the driver to lose weight because it is so visible, it is the visceral fat you really want to get rid of. But by targeting the visceral fat first, you can then begin to tackle the excess subcutaneous fat.
Waist to hip ratio
One of the best ways of assessing and monitoring your health is to measure your waist to hip ratio. Measure the circumference of your waist at belly button level. Then divide it by the circumference of your hips (the widest part around your bottom). A ratio of less than 0.8 for women and less than 0.9 for men is desirable. Of course also monitor whether your waistline is expanding.
Identifying and targeting stress is the place to start
Because belly fat is routed in stress and the cortisol response, losing it needs to target stress. Identifying stress - both psychological and physiological - is the place to start. And there are saliva tests available to measure your cortisol response, which your nutritionist can organise.
Avoid faddy diets, particularly very calorie-restrictive ones, as these won’t help lose belly fat because they put your body and your mind under further stress. Losing belly fat needs a long-term nutrition plan and stress management.
Dr Sharon Pitt is a registered nutritionist at Nutrition First, with 18 years’ experience. Nutrition First is a small and personal nutrition consultancy providing expert nutrition advice, based on sound scientific evidence.
At Nutrition First we see patients with a whole range of conditions at all stages of life, as well as helping those who simply wish to maintain and optimise their health.
We can provide you with a tailored plan to help you assess and manage stress. Contact us at Nutrition First to see how we can help you.