Weight is a hot topic, but it is important to understand that not all weight gain is equal and reducing food intake will not always tackle the problem. There is cause for concern if the extra kilos are seen around the middle of the body, leading to an apple shape or muffin top. This is because our visceral fat cells are getting bigger. Visceral fat has an important function in protecting our vital organs such as the heart, liver, and spinal cord. Too much is dangerous because it acts like a rogue organ releasing chemical messengers that raise blood pressure, create inflammation, affect blood clotting, and control hunger.

Weight gain around the middle is particularly common from early middle-age and can seem to worsen regardless of diet and exercise. Stress has a major role so it is important to understand how stress works before we can address the issue.

Stress hormones

Cortisol is an important hormone with a major influence not just on energy levels but also on thyroid function and our immune system. It should be at its highest level in the morning, giving us the energy to jump out of bed and face the day, and steadily reduces during the day so that in the evening we are relaxed and ready for sleep. If your energy levels do not follow this pattern, it may indicate imbalance. Balance is key – we do not want cortisol levels to remain high for too long.

When we are in a stressful situation both adrenaline and cortisol are released by the adrenal glands. Adrenaline keeps us alert and focused. Cortisol releases glucose (sugar) from the liver and fat from the fat cells around the middle of the body – important to give us energy for fight or flight.

After the danger is past adrenaline levels return to normal quickly but cortisol much more slowly. And if we have not done something physical to use up the extra energy then it must find a home somewhere and is re-deposited as fat around our middle close to the liver. This is deliberately done as the liver is the organ that can quickly convert the fat back into energy when needed.

Cortisol levels can stay high as the body may still think we are under threat. Our brains assume we have used up the energy in running or fighting and give a message to our bodies to refuel to be ready for subsequent attacks – our appetites increase, and our body encourages us to stock up on carbohydrates and fats as these will be the most useful for fight or flight. So, cortisol is a fat-storing hormone, specifically visceral fat.

Another hormone is also important here – insulin. The pancreas releases insulin when our blood sugar levels rise. Insulin is vitally important in maintaining balance in the body. It moves the sugar from the blood to the cells where it is stored or used for energy. When our cortisol levels are high the body needs to produce a lot of insulin. In the short term this is fine but sustained stress can lead to insulin resistance, where the cells ignore insulin’s request to store the glucose. We get into a vicious cycle of high cortisol and high insulin, playing havoc with our metabolism and weight, and eventually leading to chronic illness.

Reducing our stress level is therefore critical to weight management.

Control stress and reduce visceral fat

  • Understand and reduce the stressors in your life
    • Make a list – there will be obvious ones like family, work, commuting & money but also more subtle ones including social media, going on holiday, decorating the house and maintaining an active social life
    • Which can you reduce/eliminate?
      • Can you step back from situations that are not under your control e.g. your adult children’s lives?
    • Can you change your attitude to the unavoidable stressors?
      • Practice abdominal breathing
      • Let go of the need for perfection
  • Exercise
    • Do something you enjoy, ideally with others
    • Spend time outdoors, especially in the morning as the light early in the day is positively correlated with mood
    • Do some weights or resistance training – this is very important because we lose muscle with age and our metabolism is correlated with muscle mass i.e., the more muscle mass we have the higher our metabolism and therefore the quicker we use up our energy stores
  • Stop dieting – when we restrict food significantly the body reacts by slowing down our metabolism (thinking we are in a famine situation) resulting in weight gain after we come off our diet
  • Eat little and often – there will be less peaks and troughs of energy
  • Reduce caffeine – it is a stimulant triggering the release of cortisol so skipping a meal and replacing it with coffee will not reduce weight.
    • Don’t forget caffeine is also in tea, many fizzy drinks and chocolate
  • Reduce/eliminate alcohol
    • it is a stimulant
    • empty calories without the benefit of nutrients
  • Eliminate sugar, artificial sweeteners (e.g. zero-sugar drinks) and refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread)
    • all cause a spike in cortisol as blood sugar levels rise rapidly
  • Avoid fruit juices
    • eat the whole fruit which has fibre that slows down the release of sugar into the blood.
  • Add protein and ‘good’ fats to each meal
    • E.g. nuts/seeds with porridge, hummus with crudites, fish, eggs, avocado, extra virgin olive oil
    • these slow down the rate of digestion and hence blood sugar levels stay more constant