Although there is no magic bullet for reducing excess belly fat, getting your stress under control is the closest thing we have. Chronic stress leads to high cortisol levels, which have a number of negative effects on the body that lead your waistline to expand:
It triggers food intake, making your brain less responsive to messages from your stomach that you’ve eaten enough.
It inhibits your ability to make rationale food choices in favor of cravings for high carb “comfort” foods.
It impairs sleep, causes inflammation, and makes you resistant to insulin, altering blood sugar balance and exacerbating your experience of stress.
It lowers energy expenditure and makes you lazy, increasing the likelihood you will skip workouts.
Stress is hard to outwit because even when your cortisol levels are elevated, your brain will get a message to keep releasing more. Solving this vicious cycle takes baby steps. Here are ten you can implement today to lower your stress and start to shrink your waistline:
Step #1: Plan Meals With Protein, Veggies & Healthy Fat
Balancing blood sugar and managing your appetite is your first line of defense for keeping stress at bay. Every meal should be planned around a high-quality protein (chicken, eggs, fish, beef or other meat), low-carb vegetables (leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower), and healthy fat (nuts, avocado, seeds, olive oil) because this will lead to the release of gut hormones that blunt appetite, while avoiding peaks and valleys in insulin and blood sugar.
Step #2: Eat Every Three To Four Hours
Fasting and skipping meals is stressful for the body and it responds by releasing cortisol. Cortisol acts on the liver, muscle, and fat to release stored energy to keep you going. You can avoid this cortisol spike by eating regularly planned meals every 3 to 4 hours.
Step #3: Plan Meals In Advance
Avoid stress eating by making a plan for how you’ll cope with stressful times. You can’t wait until your already famished to make this decision—not only do you need to know when and what you’ll eat for each meal, but it’s worth it to have it prepared in advance to avoid snacking on junk food.
Step #4: Eat An Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Anti-inflammatory foods can help the body repair the damage done by high cortisol. A lot of the superfoods we hear about contain antioxidants that help eradicate inflammation: Coffee, green tea, whey protein, dark chocolate, olive oil, avocado, berries, leafy greens, beets, probiotic foods, multicolored veggies (eggplant, yellow and red peppers), fish, and legumes are all examples of foods that can help you fight the stress—belly fat cycle.
Step #5: Try Deep Breathing
Anytime you feel overwhelmed, focus on deep breathing. This approach has been shown to calm the central nervous system and lower your stress response. It’s as simple as trying to clear your mind and breathing in and out on a five-second count.
Step #6: Do Meditation
Meditation takes deep breathing a step further and has been shown to reset the adrenal axis that leads the release of cortisol. While as little as 5 or 10 minutes a day can help many people get a grip on their stress, a regular practice of 20 minutes a day will have more measurable effects on improving hormone balance, significantly reducing cortisol levels while improving release of beneficial hormones like testosterone and growth hormone.
Step #7: Start Sleeping Restfully
Lack of sleep is enemy number one of stress management. After one night of short sleep, cortisol is elevated and blood sugar control is altered. When sleep problems become an all the time thing, your central nervous system goes into chronic overdrive. Do the little things that promote sleep (avoid caffeine and alcohol, avoid screens before bedtime) and try taking melatonin to reset your circadian rhythm. Melatonin supplementation has been shown to
improve sleep quality and reduce inflammation associated with belly fat.
Step #8: Get Active In Daily Life
Stress makes us lazy so that we move less during the day, lowering our energy expenditure. Avoid sitting for long periods both at work and at home. Simply standing up and shaking out your limbs during the work day can give your metabolism a little boost, and going for a 10 minute walk after each meal has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.
Step #9: Train With Weights Two To Four Times A Week
Your number one priority should be strength training with weights because this will improve adrenal axis function and help preserve lean muscle mass. Keep workouts short (45 minutes to an hour is the sweet spot) and be sure to allow for full recovery between sessions.
Step #10: Try A Brisk Walking Program
The last thing you want to do when you’re crumbling under the stress is add to it with long cardio or high-intensity workouts. Instead, try a brisk walking program a few days a week to help you lower cortisol. Once you’ve got your stress more under control, you can add a few short (less than 20 minute) sprint interval workouts in order to burn off any stored belly fat.