Abdominal Weight Gain + Stress

woman doing up button on jeans
Written by Laura Jennings - Deakin Researcher and Registered Nutritionist

One of the most talked about, but not-so-fun side of hitting our 40s – is what I like to call… the stress-belly. That stubborn pouch that seems to have taken up permanent residence around our midsection (usually below the belly button and above the pubic bone).

Well, it turns out there's more to it than just blaming the chocolate stash.

We know that managing weight creep in our 40’s can become increasingly challenging, not to mention frustrating. BUT, more and more exercise is not always the answer.

Did you know that stress can be a significant culprit in weight gain, often wreaking havoc on both your physical AND your mental wellbeing.

Why?

Cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone, can play a very large role in weight management, especially in women over 40.

Why are we stressed?

Silly question. In our forties, we encounter numerous stressors—raising children, caring for elderly relatives, reaching new career heights, grappling with hormonal changes, and balancing social lives. The mental load really reaches its peak.

When faced with these stressors, our adrenal glands kick into overdrive producing hormones such as cortisol, preparing the body for fight or flight. A little bit of stress can be good for us, however, prolonged exposure to stress can lead to consistently elevated cortisol levels, disrupting various physiological processes, one of them being digestion.

What happens next?

For optimal digestion to occur, the parasympathetic nervous system must be activated. This is when we’re relaxed and calm and everything works as it should. But when our stress response is triggered, the influx of cortisol halts the release of digestive enzymes and redirects all energy and resources to the fight or flight response (the sympathetic nervous system)1.

You might feel these symptoms such as indigestion, reflux, and more commonly, bloating.

But, bloating and belly fat are not the same. So, what is it about cortisol that contributes to actual weight gain?

3 ways that stress increases weight gain.

  1. The Cortisol-Weight Gain Connection

Cortisol increases the activity of lipoprotein lipase, whose role in the body is to store visceral fat, (the type of fat that accumulates deep within the abdomen and around vital organs)2. This is the worst kind of fat to store - unlike subcutaneous fat, which lies just beneath the skin and is relatively harmless, visceral fat poses greater health risks, including cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders.

  1. Gut imbalances (dysbiosis)

Cortisol alters the balance of bacteria in the gut, boosting harmful strains while diminishing beneficial ones. This imbalance, termed gut dysbiosis, weakens the gut lining, facilitating the intrusion of pathogens and bacteria into the bloodstream. This in turn causes a chain reaction of inflammation, leading to lasting alterations in body fat, insulin resistance, and ultimately causing weight gain3.

When sustained inflammation occurs in the body, it can lead to fluid retention in tissues, including the abdominal area. This fluid retention can manifest as puffiness or bloating around the abdomen, giving the appearance of increased girth or distention.

  1. Stress Induced Food Choices

Stress also heightens the likelihood of consuming unhealthy, high-fat, high-sugar foods while reducing the intake of healthier options4. We’ve all reached for the block of chocolate or packet of Tim Tams - instant comfort and mood-enhancing - but the long term effects add up. 

Whilst emotional eating is one way we might use food to cope with stress-induced emotions such as anxiety, it's a fast-fix that doesn't really serve us well. 

Moreover, chronic stress can leave individuals feeling drained, leading to a preference for quick, processed foods that are typically rich in unhealthy fats, salt and sugars. We've all ordered take-out when we are just too tired to cook. Once in a while is ok, but don't make a habit of it! 

  1. Stress & Sleep

You have probably already realised that stress also affects your sleep, leading to difficulties in both falling asleep and staying asleep. When we experience inadequate sleep (less than 7 hours per night), research suggests that we're prone to consuming an additional two-to-three-hundred calories per meal compared to those who are well-rested5. Dr. Matthew Walker, a sleep neuroscientist at the University of California, further notes that insufficient sleep increases the likelihood of choosing calorie-rich foods, contributing to abdominal weight gain5.

So, if we know cortisol is the issue, what can we do about it?

Reducing stress induced belly fat involves a combination of diet, lifestyle changes and stress management techniques:

Balanced Diet 

Focus on a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains (oats, quinoa, wholemeal bread, brown rice), lean proteins and healthy fats. Reduce processed foods and sugary snacks.

Consider Probiotics 

Probiotics will help improve the ratio of good bacteria in the gut preventing inflammation and helping with weight management. You can take a probiotic supplement or get probiotics from whole food sources, such as, yogurt, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, kefir and pickling vegetables.

Limit Alcohol

Alcohol is empty calories and stops us getting the proper nutrients from food, impacting gut health. Increase the number of alcohol-free days in your week or swap to non-alcoholic alternatives if you enjoy the ritual of a drink in the evenings.

Hydration

Drink plenty of water (roughly 2-3 litres per day) to stay hydrated and support metabolism.

Regular Exercise

Engage in physical activity such as, walking, weight-training, swimming or yoga to help boost those endorphins and reduce stress. These will also increase your muscle mass which in turn burns more calories.

Mindfulness Techniques

Practice mindfulness meditation and deep breathing exercises to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).

Adequate Sleep

Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. Poor sleep can increase stress hormones and promote weight gain, including belly fat. Look for ways to promote relaxation and wind-down before bed. We have a number of articles on this!

Social Support

Maintain strong social connections with friends and family for emotional support.

Seek Professional Help

If stress is overwhelming and impacting your ability to make healthy choices, consider speaking with a therapist or counselor to develop coping strategies. Consult with a registered dietitian or nutritionist for personalized dietary advice and guidance.

Remember, reducing belly fat takes time and consistency. Focus on making gradual, sustainable changes to your diet and lifestyle for long-term success.

 

 References:

  1. Browning KN, Travagli RA. Central nervous system control of gastrointestinal motility and secretion and modulation of gastrointestinal functions. Compr Physiol. 2014 Oct;4(4):1339-68.
  2. Barton A, Yancy W. Determining the Culprit: Stress, Fat, or Carbohydrates. Biol Psychiatry. 2015 Aug 15;78(4):e12.
  3. Mendes de Oliveira E, Silva JC, Ascar TP, Sandri S, Marchi AF, Migliorini S, Nakaya HTI, Fock RA, Campa A. Acute Inflammation Is a Predisposing Factor for Weight Gain and Insulin Resistance. Pharmaceutics. 2022 Mar 11;14(3):623.
  4. Hill, D., Conner, M., Clancy, F., Moss, R., Wilding, S., Bristow, M., & O’Connor, D. B. (2022). Stress and eating behaviours in healthy adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Health Psychology Review, 16(2), 280–304.
  5. Walker M Why We Sleep? Penguin Books. 2018