Can Stress Make You Gain Belly Fat?

Do you struggle carrying that ‘spare tyre’ around? There may be one culprit – stress.

Stress and Appetite

During fight-or-flight situations, stress hormones give us the biochemical strength we need. So when you see someone being able to carry a fridge out of a burning house, it’s because of those hormones.


When caught up in a stressful event, your body releases hormones such as adrenalin, which gives you instant energy, along with corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol. In relation to appetite, high amounts of adrenalin and CRH makes you want to eat less. However, the effects usually don’t last long.


Cortisol is different. It works on replenishing your body after a stressful situation, and it stays around a lot longer. This hormone can remain elevated, increasing your appetite and makes you want to eat more.


Chronic stress without physical activity causes a sharp rise in cortisol levels. Whilst it increases hunger, it also promotes the desire for high-calorie foods.


Even more, cortisol affects fat distribution by causing fat to be stored centrally. This means around your internal organs. When you’re prolonged to cortisol exposure, your visceral fat, the fat surrounding the organs, can increase. Cortisol can also cause you to lose muscle tissues in arms and legs and store fat in the abdomen.


Too much fat stored in your belly can be a major health concern. Visceral fat is particularly dangerous because it wraps around vital organs and releases fatty acids into your blood, which elevates cholesterol and insulin levels and then lead to heart disease and diabetes.

The Body’s Fat Storage Enzyme, HSD

Deep within the fat cells, there is a little enzyme called 11 beta-hydroxysteroid-dehydrogenase-1 (HSD). HSD converts inactive cortisol back into active cortisol, which then functions as a potent fat-storage signal within fat cells, especially those fat cells in the belly area.


HSD is more active in the abdominal fat cells than the fat cells in other parts of the body, which explains why cortisol exposure is associated with higher levels of fat in the abdominal area compared in the other parts of the body, such as the thighs and buttocks.

How to Get Rid of Belly Fat

So what can you do about that ‘spare tyre’? With physical activity and proper diet!


Regular moderate physical activity, at least 30 minutes per day (even better if up to 60 minutes per day) will help you control weight. Strength training can also help get rid of belly fat. If you’re considering doing spot exercises, keep in mind that they can tighten abdominal muscles but they won’t reach the visceral fats.


Of course, exercise should be complemented with proper diet. When you eat, always be mindful of portion size, and emphasize complex carbohydrates such as fruits, veggies and whole grains, and lean protein over simple carbohydrates. This means less (or no) white bread, refined grain pasta and sugary beverages. Another helpful way is to replace foods with saturated fats and trans fats with polyunsaturated fats.


You simply can’t get rid of belly fat by eliminating stress alone. But if you make it a habit to exercise and eat healthy every day, you can help shrink down the belly and even fight stress altogether!


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