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Why stress might be giving you visceral fat
April 15th 2018 / 0 comment
Forever trying to get rid of that spare tyre around your middle? It could be an indicator that you’re in need of a health overhaul. Here’s how to spot a ‘worry waist’, how to prevent it and how to lose it
Is worrying making your overweight? Unfortunately, it seems our fast-track lifestyles could be catching up with not just our minds, but our waistlines too.
Stress is by far one of the biggest modern day threats to our health triggering all manner of unhealthy habits (more sugar, less movement, more booze...), and wreaking havoc with our bodies’ inner workings. But why distinguish this type of weight gain in particular? “What we need to recognise is that there's a difference between stress-related body fat and calorie-related body fat. A ‘worry waist’ is really just a ‘language’ your body chooses to tell yourself something within you is off-balance,” explains Jess Schuring, fitness expert and co-founder of Heartcore Pilates, meaning that it could prove to be a key physical indicator that a lifestyle overhaul is in serious need.
Do you have a ‘worry waist’?
Extra middle management is needed during middle age due to both lifestyle and bodily changes. “I see this quite frequently in men and women around their 40’s,” says nutritional therapist Henrietta Norton. What are its defining characteristics? “Typically, they may be quite lean everywhere else but with a wider trunk that they can’t seem to shift despite diet or exercise,” she explains.
How does stress make us fat?
Essentially, it all starts with our 'fight or flight' hormones not having a sufficient outlet. “Under chronic stress, your body produces a constant stream of certain stress hormones called cortisol and adrenalin. These hormones trigger the release of stored glucose and fat to be released in preparation to run away from danger. However, today’s stress is not the sabre-toothed tiger of our palaeolithic predecessors; it is often when we are situated behind the wheel of a car or at our desk!” explains Henrietta. “This means that the fat and glucose don’t get used up or burnt as energy and instead, get deposited around the trunk (it chooses this area because it is near the liver and can easily be converted back into energy if needed).
“What’s more, this type of stress also increases our appetite for sugary or salty foods - especially after the stressful event has calmed down - and because of the metabolic ‘mode’ the body is now set on, it is more likely to store this food as fat around the middle than to be used as fuel,” she adds.
This kind of weight gain is especially dangerous to our health due to the type of fat that is deposited. “The fat that sits around the trunk (called visceral fat) is thought to be more ‘metabolically active’ which simply means it has its own ability to produce certain chemicals that increase inflammation, raise blood pressure and alter cholesterol and insulin regulation,” Henrietta warns. “Because this visceral fat lies particularly close to vital organs including the liver and heart, it is also regarded as more of a threat to cardiovascular health than fat deposited elsewhere in the body. For women going through the menopause or perimenopause this can be heightened by hormonal changes.”
What are the best ways to lose a worry waist?
1. Manage stress by turning non-constructive worry into constructive worry
“There are two types of worry, constructive worry and non-constructive worry,” says Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist and anxiety expert at easywaytochange.co.uk. “Constructive worry can be helpful if it spurs us into action and helps us to solve our problems. However, most of us tend to have the same circular worries over and over about things we can't control.”
If you’re trapped in a toxic and time-consuming cycle of worry, diarise time in which to resolve daily niggles - a tactic which is sure to appeal to your inner compartmentalist. “Instead of worrying throughout the day, pick a 15 minute window of ‘worry time’ and save your worries until then,” advises Chloe. “Use that time to constructively worry. Make plans of action and to-do lists and work on solving your problems during this time. This will help you to feel more in control and stop the worries from taking over your whole day. Also recognise which worries are out of your control; sometimes just recognising this fact can help you to let them go.”
2. Do grounding activities
If the idea of mindfulness causes anxiety levels to sore, manage the stress it causes through re-balancing activities advises Henrietta. “Managing stress is a key component - do whatever you need to find the grounding balance in your life, whether that’s dancing, reading, swimming, walking, meditation or yoga,” she explains.
3. Move everyday...
...however, this needn’t mean doing more intense exercise, rather more strategic exercise to avoid being counterproductive. “The temptation when working to lose weight is to adopt more vigorous exercise such as spinning, fast running or squash, but these types of activities can perpetuate the cycle,” says Henrietta. “Balance your exercise with more grounding exercise as above.”
4. Replace that extra workout with more sleep
Sometimes, time spent in the gym could be better spent in bed. It's true, we kid you not. “Replacing a workout with two extra hours of sleep instead can work wonders on your stress levels, actively addressing ‘life’ issues that make you unhappy and changing them for the better (relationships, work, commitments etc.),” explains Jess Schuring.
5. Eat magnesium-rich foods
Magnesium is one of the few nutrients that pretty much every nutrition expert we’ve spoken to has highlighted as being pivotal in boosting overall health and wellbeing - especially in times of high stress. “Magnesium is needed for energy production and for our adrenal hormones and is quickly used up when we are stressed,” explains Henrietta. “Lack of sleep is also a ‘stressor’ and magnesium can help increase it. The best examples are nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds and hemp seeds; and hemp protein powder), buckwheat groats or flour (buckwheat is actually a seed and not related to wheat), greens such as spinach and kale and also, fish and seafood. You can also top up your levels with a supplement. If you are not sleeping well, taking the magnesium before you go to bed can be supportive. I use Food-Grown® Magnesium with great success.”
6. Break the cycle
“The way to return to a healthy weight is to understand what is causing the worries and focussing on being in a happy mindset by creating balance in your life,” says Jess Schuring. “Breaking the routine you're stuck in and making conscious and new choices that may feel counterproductive and uncomfortable at first will have long-lasting effects on the way you feel and the way you look.”
How do we begin? “Slowing down in general (stop saying yes to everything) is a good start,” says Jess. “As is learning to listen internally to your body, tapping into how you actually feel, (sad? Happy? Stressed? Tired? Overwhelmed?) and making choices/creating new routines accordingly that help you to find your way back to a balanced, happy way of life.”
7. Eat foods high in protein in every meal and snack
Help prevent the build-up of excess glucose and slow its conversion into stored fat by making meals and snacks more protein-packed. “Protein slows down the breakdown of foods and absorption of glucose into the bloodstream,” explains Henrietta. The best sources? “Protein foods include eggs, meat, fish, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils,” she recommends.
8. Build in fat
It may seem counterintuitive to fight fat with fat, but the right fats could help you reap rewards. “Healthy fats may also help to slow down the absorption of glucose,” says Henrietta. “Good sources include oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocados; and good quality, cold-pressed oils such as olive oil, flaxseed oil and hemp oil (always use flaxseed or hemp oil on cold or warm foods, never for cooking with; and ideally use olive oil only at low temperatures).”
9. Try intermittent fasting
Diets such as The 5:2 Diet have proven to be among some of the most popular diets in recent memory and if done properly, it seems their benefits could also extend to improving overall health too. “If you are also experiencing high cholesterol or blood pressure then, with the support of a nutritional therapist, you could consider a well formulated intermittent fasting plan,” recommends Henrietta. “Research has shown this to be especially effective at supporting visceral weight loss.”
10. Don’t eat late at night
Late night munchies - ah yes, we know them well however, indulging them will set you back. “Eating at night is more likely to be stored as fat rather than used for energy in the evening,” says Henrietta. Great for the night, not so much for the light of day, keep mealtimes consistent to help keep the munchies' more negative side-effects at bay.
11. Consider supplements
“Support blood sugar through supplements that provide alpha lipoid acid, chromium or zinc,” recommends Henrietta. “These nutrients can support your body’s use of glucose, encouraging it away from being deposited as visceral fat.”
“Consider supporting your diet with a good quality B Complex (I use Wild Nutrition B Complex Plus in my clinic),” she advises. “B vitamins support the body’s use of glucose from food to be used as fuel in our cells.”
12. Learn to meditate
In terms of taking back control of your stress levels, scheduled meditation could make all the difference to your day and waistline. And, contrary to popular belief, needn’t take long to do. “If you're a worrier, meditation should be up there on your list of priorities with brushing your teeth and showering - think of it like cleaning your brain of the day's rubbish,” advises Chloe. “You could use an app like Headspace, learn Transcendental Meditation (a technique loved by Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston) or just sit quietly for 10 minutes, focusing on your breathing. Think you don't have time to meditate? Instead, ask yourself ‘Do I have time to feel stressed and anxious?’” Good point.
13. Make health your end goal, (not a six pack)
From what our panel of experts have advised, it seems clear that shifting our fitness goal posts to accommodate objectives for both body and mind makes for the most effective plan of action for losing our ‘worry waists’ for good. “Make real happiness your goal (not that six pack),” says Jess. “In the end, you are the only one who can change the way you feel and look. There is no quick fix solution to it, it's more recalibrating the way you live your life, consciously.”