Okay, you’ve known for a while that you have to lose a few inches off your middle.
So you’ve cut down on the calories and begun to exercise.
But nothing’s happening. The inches are still there.
For some reason, you just can’t lose that belly fat.
After a while, you decide it’s not worth the effort.
It’s giving you too much stress anyway, and that’s something you definitely don’t need more of.
As a matter of fact, you decide to have more chocolate. Chocolate always makes you feel better after a stressful day.
Hold on. Don’t beat yourself up just yet.
Those extra pounds and your increased appetite may not be your fault.
They might be a result of chronic stress.
A recent study has confirmed what many researchers have suspected for a while.
Chronic stress is a major contributor to abdominal weight gain.
This post will be the first in a 3 part series where I’ll examine the dangers of excess abdominal weight gained from stress.
Here’s what you can expect from this series:
- First, we’ll examine a new study that shows the high correlation between belly fat and stress and how it can be a predictor of future health problems.
- Second, we’ll look at why stress causes abdominal weight gain and why it may be a secondary consequence of other metabolic problems occurring in your body.
- And, third, we’ll look at a current theory on why stress causes increased appetite and finish up with what you can do to reduce stress and the weight gain caused by it.
So without further ado, let’s jump into part 1.
New Research Confirms Stress Causes Weight Gain
We all know that chronic stress is bad and can lead to problems like high blood pressure and cardiac problems.
Some of us also know from experience that stress can make us eat more and put on extra pounds.
However, those extra pounds gained around your middle aren’t just unsightly and annoying. They might also be a sign of something more serious.
This February, the University College London released a study demonstrating the high correlation between stress and weight gain.
In this study, researchers wanted to determine the relationship between stress and obesity.
In order to do so, they measured the amount of the “stress hormone cortisol” in each person as it correlated with fat gain.
The study followed 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years old for a period of four years.
Patient’s hair samples were used to determine cortisol levels. Cortisol from hair samples provides a more accurate picture of cortisol than samples taken from saliva, blood, or urine.
In order to determine obesity, researchers measured the weight, waist size, and body mass index of the participants.
After analyzing the data, researchers found that people with higher levels of cortisol in their hair samples tended to have a larger waist circumference, were heavier, and had a higher body mass index (BMI).
Also, persons classified as obese on the basis of their BMI or waist circumference (greater than or equal to 40″ in men, 35″ in women) had significantly high cortisol levels.
This data suggests that chronic stress seems to cause weight gain specifically around the abdomen.
The researchers of the study concluded, “elevated cortisol concentrations are associated with markers of adiposity and with the persistence of obesity over time.”
The bottom line is that chronic stress is associated with abdominal weight gain. If stress is not alleviated, it will become harder to lose the extra weight over time.
While researchers did note the seriousness of abdominal weight gain, they didn’t elaborate on it.
Excess abdominal weight, though, whether it’s from chronic stress or any other cause, is a serious health issue.
It could be a sign that something is taking place in your body that could cause serious health issues down the road.
Let’s take a look.
The Dangers of Belly Fat
Dr. Sarah Jackson, the lead researcher of the London study, commented,
“People who had higher hair cortisol levels also tended to have larger waist measurements, which is important because carrying excess fat around the abdomen is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and premature death.”
Research has consistently shown this to be true.
The famous Nurses’ Health Study of 2008 studied 44,636 women over a 16 year period and found that excess abdominal fat as measured by waist to hip ratio (WHR) was strongly correlated with a higher rate of CVD and cancer mortality.
Research has also shown this correlation to hold for men.
Another study showed that the problem is also not limited to one’s ethnicity.
However, notice this important finding.
In the Nurses’ study, researchers also found that elevated CVD mortality was also present in women who had a high WHR but who also had a normal body weight.
Now that’s striking. If you are normal weight but have a high WHR you have an increased risk of developing a significant disease or early death. (Click here to see your waist to hip ratio and how it rates.)
This health problem might be reaching epidemic proportions.
A 2012 CDC study found that 67% of women and 44% of men in the United States suffered from abdominal obesity.
While the London study didn’t prove a link between stress and abdominal weight gain, it did show they were highly correlated.
The London Study Didn’t Prove Cortisol Increases Abdominal Fat
Obviously, excess abdominal fat is dangerous. If you have it, then you should do what’s necessary to fix it.
If stress and subsequently higher cortisol levels cause you to gain excess belly fat, then obviously you must deal with the stress.
I could at this point stop and simply lay out for you the standard advice on reducing stress and leave it at that.
But I wouldn’t be giving you the entire story.
Susan K. Fried, Ph.D., an obesity expert and professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, stated in a CBS News article that the findings of this study “are consistent with other data in the literature that shows how high cortisol levels, known to be induced by stress, are associated with obesity.”
She agrees that there is a correlation between stress, cortisol, and obesity. She continues,
… obesity in the people studied likely developed many years earlier. Thus, these high hair cortisol values may simply reflect social or biological stress associated with being [obese]… Thus, we cannot infer causality from the analysis made in this paper.”
Her point is that it’s possible that prior obesity causes stress which subsequently produces high cortisol levels.
Dr. Fried has a point. Simply showing a correlation between high cortisol levels and obesity doesn’t mean high cortisol causes obesity.
However, Fried’s comments are also speculative. They don’t disprove that cortisol might be a contributing factor to obesity or increased abdominal fat.
This is one of the problems with correlation studies. They often show a high probability of a link between things, but they don’t demonstrate what that link actually is.
In this case, however, the data appears to be conclusive. Chronic stress is highly associated with abdominal weight gain.
But the London study still leaves us with some thorny questions to answer.
First, do high cortisol levels secondary to chronic stress cause weight gain?
And, second, if they do, how does it happen?
The answer to the first question is yes.
You might be shocked by the answer to the second.
I’ll be looking at both these questions in my next post.
If we discover the link between chronic stress and belly fat, we’re on the way to finding a solution to this problem.
That’s it for today. What’s your take?
I’ll see you next week for part 2.
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