Eating all the right foods and exercising regularly but not seeing any results? Dr Libby Weaver explains why that stubborn belly fat isn’t budging.
Where our body chooses to deposit body fat can tell us a lot about what’s happening on the inside.
Some of our hormones, for example, can be linked to a specific pattern of body fat storage in different areas of the body.
Of course, there can be individual differences in our body shape, but when it comes to storing more body fat in our belly, this can often be a sign of excessive production of insulin and/or cortisol, our chronic stress hormone.
Historically, chronic stress was mostly linked to times where food became scarce such as during droughts, wars or famines.
Your body’s highest priority is to keep you alive and storing body fat during times when you may not have access to food regularly is a protective mechanism. And where are all of your important organs (besides your brain) located? In your mid-section.
So, your body actually thinks it’s doing you a great big favour by laying down extra fat across this area.
The thing is, in our world today, chronic stress is mostly psychological and food is rarely scarce (unless we are choosing to restrict our intake for other reasons—more on this in a moment). So, this ancient mechanism of laying down body fat across your middle to protect your organs doesn’t have the same impact that it once did when it comes to your survival.
While our body is churning out the stress hormone cortisol, which is communicating to every cell in our body that we need to store body fat instead of burning it, we continue eating the same amount of food (or sometimes more). When we’re stressed we tend to make different food choices, too. This is partly biochemical—our body wants quick energy and so we’re drawn to more sugary foods—and partly emotional—we might be seeking comfort or to momentarily distract ourselves from the stress.
At some point though, we probably look down at our bellies and think “I have to go on a diet” and/or “I need to start training harder”. But the thing is, both of these things can actually communicate to the body that we need to keep producing more cortisol since a reduction in food consumption confirms to the body that there is indeed a food shortage. Meanwhile, excessive intense exercise can add additional stress. So, we can end up working against our body instead of with it.
When we’re highly stressed, this can also contribute to an increase in our blood glucose levels, which can trigger more insulin production. Insulin is a hormone that acts to reduce your blood glucose levels, and it also promotes body fat storage.
When body fat is predominantly stored in the tummy, this is more strongly linked to insulin resistance. And when cells become ‘resistant’ to insulin, your body has to produce higher amounts of insulin to have an adequate glucose lowering effect.
What to do
If you’ve noticed that your body is storing more body fat around your middle, first of all consider whether you feel it might be linked to chronic stress or insulin. If it’s stress, then cultivating calm through restorative practices (such as restorative yoga, qi gong, tai chi, meditation or breath work), addressing your perception of pressure and urgency in everyday life and cutting down your consumption of caffeine (which promotes stress hormone production) will be much more effective than amping up your exercise intensity and going on a calorie-restricted diet.
If you feel it’s more insulin related, taking a look at the types of food you’re consuming is a great place to start. Minimise your intake of refined sugars and flours, highly processed foods and caffeine, and focus on amping up your nourishment from whole, real foods.
Considering stress reduction techniques can also still be highly beneficial as stress can drive blood glucose surges in the body which then communicate the need for more insulin.
Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, bestselling author, speaker and founder of the plant-based supplement range Bio Blends. You can find out more about her books and courses at drlibby.com.