I recently had the pleasure of interviewing for an author based in New York and her article published on Livestrong.com. After sending her my notes, I realized our work together had formed a great summary of all of the ways my baby, The Hormone Diet, truly provides the complete fix for “stress belly”. Even though this book was written 10 years ago, and my last just two ago, her questions prompted great food-for-thought and a new perspective on how to re-structure my message after so many years. While I have known from personal and clinical experience that the dreaded stress belly has a whole lot more to do with our hormones, our health and how we exercise – than simply our diet – perhaps this will now help you to understand too……..
The Hormones That Drive Stress Belly
Excess Cortisol: Not only does excess cortisol, our long term stress hormone, increase appetite and cravings, but it also causes a loss of memory, muscle mass, libido, and bone density. Stress causes abdominal fat – even in people who are otherwise thin. Hundreds of studies have established the link between high cortisol and more belly fat, as well as increased storage of abdominal fat. In my 20 years of medical practice, I have seen that most patients, unfortunately, adopt behaviors that only serve to make the problem worse. This is especially true for women 30 – 70 years of age who, more often than not, miss meals or excessively restrict calories, over-exercise (too long, too hard, too often) and tend to choose the wrong types of exercise like spinning, running or
High cortisol is linked to depression, anxiety, sleep disruption and simply feeling dissatisfied or overwhelmed. These concerns and mental states seriously add inches right around our waistline. Also, If your blood sugar levels are on a rollercoaster all day, you can bet your cortisol is as well. I tell my patients that it is almost impossible for me to restore their cortisol balance if they skip breakfast (I encourage them to eat within an hour of rising), and continue to miss a protein meal between 2 – 4 pm. Their last meal in the evening should be finished by 7 p.m.
Once patients truly embrace this eating pattern, I see blood cortisol levels reduce – right along with their belly button circumference – even if no change is noted on the scale. This is because these patients often gain muscle while losing belly fat and as an added bonus, their energy and sleep improves – and cravings always disappear.
High cortisol causes belly fat because it increases insulin resistance and makes you more at risk of weight gain – especially with too many carbs or the wrong carbs for you. You will know when you are in this hormonal and metabolic state because you will be constantly hungry and craving. Cortisol also causes a drop in growth hormone; is linked to low testosterone in men; and inhibits the function of thyroid hormone, the master of our metabolic rate. And the final bad news about cortisol: it is proven to make us hungry for high-fat, high-carb comfort foods that perpetuate belly fat, even after we are full.
Insulin: Released mostly in response to the carbohydrates in our diet, it is one of the main reasons why carbs fuel more belly fat with age. Weight gain around the abdomen, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, low good cholesterol, food cravings and difficulty losing weight are all associated with high insulin. It’s a catch 22 – because the higher your insulin levels, the greater your accumulation of belly fat and extra fat around the waist in turn increases your risk of diabetes and heart disease (and of course, an expanding waistline). Your belly fat makes you carb sensitive. So, if you suspect your insulin is imbalanced, increase your healthy fat and protein intake while lowering your intake of all starchy carbohydrates – which should be restricted to your evening meal and a serving about the size of your fist. I even suggest avoiding the healthy carbs like sweet potato, brown rice, hummus and chickpeas, if you have more than 15 pounds to lose because they are higher in impact carbs (those that impact your blood sugar).
Estrogen: Just as too much estrogen is known to fuel weight gain, so does a dip in estrogen too. Menopausal women are more weight gain due to a number of hormonal changes at this phase but some studies suggest the body reacts to the loss of estrogen from the ovaries by trying to produce more estrogen from fat cells. In order to make estrogen, the cells have to store more fat, which in turn triggers fat gain. According to researchers from the University of Maryland, an enzyme that breaks down fat into its separate components for uptake by fat cells was more active in postmenopausal women compared with peri-menopausal women. Another cause of stress belly in older women – serotonin the happy hormone becomes less effective in the brain as estrogen declines. That increases carb cravings and belly fat.
Testosterone: Testosterone levels decrease in men as their excess abdominal fat causes it to be converted to estrogen and also if they are under high stress. As estrogen levels rise, so does the tendency to accumulate more abdominal fat, fueling the situation. Testosterone levels tend to taper off with aging, obesity
Growth Hormone: Growth hormone is essential to maintaining healthy bones, skin
Other Than Hormonal Issues, Are Any Other Physiological Factors Related to Stress Belly?
– Any type of digestive issue – all aspects of gut health impact your ability to lose stress belly and to achieve optimal hormonal balance. Digestive factors include: bacterial balance (microbiome), fiber, probiotics, inflammation of the gut lining, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, leaky gut syndrome, etc.
– Chronic stress – related to any cause emotional, physical, financial, spiritual, etc…and any real or imagined stress causes the exact same reaction – cortisol levels rise.
– Immune imbalance – linked to breast implant disease, autoimmune conditions, inflammation, allergies and other signs of immune disruption.
– Sleep Concerns – failing to sleep enough, at the right times, naked, and in total darkness may cause hormonal imbalance.
– Lack of sex – can further the hormonal imbalance that causes more belly fat and can increase looking for a fix from food rather than…… – Your muscle mass – having enough muscle for your frame is vitally important for maintaining metabolism, the ability to beat belly fat, to maintain strength and energy.
What Should You Avoid Ingesting to Prevent Stress Belly? Why?
I have used a two-step nutrition process with my patients for 20 years and it is the same process outlined in my #1 Bestselling Book The Hormone Diet and The New York Times Bestseller, The Supercharged Hormone Diet.
Within the first three weeks of either of these plans, all of your food-based culprits are identified. In weeks one and two you will completely avoid certain foods because they cause stress and immune imbalance, including:
• Inflammatory and allergenic foods –– all grains including those with and without gluten, all dairy products, citrus foods (except lemon and lime), red meats, processed meats, deep fried foods, all bad oils (we remove these forever because of inflammation), anything containing corn, and peanuts
• Insulinogenic foods – anything containing sugar, artificial sweeteners, all grains, potatoes, and alcohol.
During week three, you will introduce some of the foods from my to-be-avoided list, but only those that do not have the potential to fuel stress belly simply because they are high-fibre, low-carb or protein-rich. Take home message here is that if you do not experience bloating, swelling, fatigue, inflammatory symptoms like joint pain, etc. or other symptoms related to your mood or headaches, when trying each food separately daily, then I believe it is safe to conclude the tested food will probably not further the accumulation of your belly fat. Why? Because, this process, in essence, identifies your food sensitivities. It is the most powerful part of any detox – as it allows you to gain the insight and to make an enlightened decision about the foods you select to eat and, ultimately, how you are going to look and feel.
So you will monitor your symptoms while you will introduce the following foods, one day at a time:
• Low fat, high protein dairy like swiss cheese slices, Greek yogurt
• Kamut and rye – as sources of gluten – if you react to both you are most likely gluten sensitive
• Grass-fed beef
If you want to complete the detox, you can purchase my detox kit, which comes with a free PDF of the dietary instructions and how to monitor your body pH, which effects your hormones, inflammation, energy and wellness.
Is There Anything You Should Eat To Reduce Stress Belly? Why?
After The Supercharged 3-week plan (which is all about FIXING the problems that underlie belly fat including digestive stress, poor liver health, inflammation and immune imbalance and more.) Then my patients move to The Hormone Boost plan, which I created to focus on BOOSTING the hormones that beat stress belly. It involves eating the right foods at the right times in the right combinations to optimize the hormone balance. This, plus moderate exercise, which doesn’t spike cortisol and tear down muscle, is certainly the secret to success.
The Right Foods
1. Eat lean protein, low-glycemic carbohydrates,
2. I want you to calculate specific guidelines for protein intake to build and preserve muscle. You have a daily range
The Hormone Boost is all about boosting your fat loss, strength
3. Avoid a starchy carb at breakfast while following The Hormone Boost plan. If you stick to a high-protein breakfast, it increases thyroid hormone and sets your dopamine levels for the day – which means that you will enjoy better appetite control and be craving-free while also avoiding that mid-afternoon slump. This means
4. Choose a completely carb-free breakfast to kick your fat-burning plan into high gear. Skipping fruit and other carbs at breakfast helps to keep you in the same ketogenic (fat-burning) state that happens overnight that lasts until your first meal carb-containing meal of the day. I don’t usually recommend this right away – I like to save it as a “tweak” for later use. You may want to kick in the carb-free breakfast as a means of tricking your metabolism, though, if you feel your results are slowing down or if you’ve hit a weight-loss plateau.
5. Ditch snacking. You will have four equally-sized meals instead. After almost 20 years of clinical practice and three bestselling books, I have seen a number of similar trends, over and over. A big one is the midafternoon snack, which seems to lack sufficient protein and offers too many carbs and too much fat. To escape this dieting mistake, we ditch the snacks in The Hormone Boost plan. Instead, you will eat three or four equally-sized meals and avoid sabotaging your results by failing to consume enough protein. We’ve always heard the importance of eating three square meals a day, and it might not be as outdated as it seems. If you consume enough protein, avoid excess carbs at meal times, and eat regularly, you can avoid messing with the hormones that keep on the weight. But if you skip meals, wait too long between meals, fail to consume enough protein, or eat the wrong foods, your body experiences more dips and spikes than it should – and that throws your hormones, like insulin and cortisol, out of whack. Specifically, waiting too long to eat between meals causes a blood sugar drop, which triggers a stress response in your body, which in turn releases cortisol – and causes your energy to crash hard. This causes you to overeat at your next meal, leading to
6. Have your starchy carb after 4:00 pm, in your evening meal. The concept of eating your carbs early in the day because you will have a better chance of burning them off could actually be setting you up for cravings all day long. Eating a starchy carb – like potatoes or beans – early in the day creates cravings for them later in the day. So I suggest you eat only one in your last meal. At this point in the day, that carb will raise your serotonin levels, which help with sleep. And sleep is one of the best fat-burning activities when we create the optimum conditions for it, as laid out in The Hormone Boost rules. Consuming at least one starchy carb per day also helps to maintain testosterone. A diet free of starchy carbs drops testosterone and serotonin and increases stress hormones. Lastly, don’t forget the benefit that eating starch only in the evening meal has on boosting adiponectin during the day: this can increase greater weight loss and seems to be easier to follow. And we all know: any diet you stick to is the one for you.
7. Boost T3 thyroid hormone by having a “cheat meal” once a week. Your only restriction is that you must not consume any of the foods you are to avoid 100% of the time (i.e. the list above);
You can learn more about this stage of the diet, complete list of permitted foods and suggested serving sizes in the dietary download included in the 28 Day Hormone Boost Kit, whey protein based or vegan protein based.
Additional Tips to Combat Stress Belly:
Relax / Sleep: This is particularly beneficial because it lowers cortisol, the main culprit for belly fat. And while we sleep, we benefit from the production of two powerful stress belly- busting hormones: growth hormone and melatonin. Both of these hormones help with stress belly because they support healthy muscle mass. Melatonin counteracts high levels of cortisol and estrogen and boosts thyroid hormone. Growth hormone helps women build muscle important for metabolism, blood sugar
High-Intensity Interval training: Definitely the best type of training for belly fat because it elicits the perfect hormonal response. When done properly, it raises growth hormone, increases adrenaline which burns fat, it also improves insulin sensitivity because it helps to support healthy muscle mass. This type of training is not associated with spiking cortisol. With these things combined, it makes it the perfect metabolic solution. It must be done for 30 minutes, and ideally three to four times a week. Combine this with one or two d
Intermittent Fasting: if you practice intermittent fasting, ongoing, every day by avoiding eating until 1 PM or so and then eating only two meals a day, you will set yourself up for belly fat in the future because this does two things: 1) it causes cortisol imbalance because of the calorie restriction and eventually adrenal fatigue. 2) every single patient I have seen in a clinical study has lost muscle mass using this approach.
I recommend intermittent fasting where it is done once a week and on that day, calories are kept to less than 500-600. I find better results when my patients took products that have amino acids such as
Limiting fructose and glucose: this is essential for every person that wants to beat belly fat. The exception is you need to earn these foods so if you move a lot and exercise a lot then you can get away with eating a little bit of this. Otherwise, I don’t recommend it at all, or only once a week. Basically, you need to earn your cheat meal with sweat.
Going gluten and dairy free: I personally follow this approach myself, I find it the most helpful because it cuts inflammation and avoids the bloating associated with food sensitivities that can make you feel like you have a lot of belly fat. I tell patients this – if you wake up looking puffy around your eyes, feeling groggy, joint pain or stiffness in your hands – at least one or ore of the foods you are eating is triggering inflammation and slowing the loss of your stress belly.
Raising adiponectin levels: adiponectin is a fat burning friend. It approves insulin sensitivity, it has been known to reduce belly fat and reduce inflammation. It is released when we exercise, eat fiber and also with supplements like zinc, resveratrol, green tea and foods like olive oil, coffee, turmeric, red wine, tomato juice, blueberries, consuming one serving of carbs at dinner versus at any other time of day has also been proven to raise adiponectin and increase muscle which is why I have made this a foundational principle in my Hormone Diet and Hormone Boost books.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis: I have an infrared sauna in my clinic, it is an excellent way to increase calories burned, boost metabolism especially for those who are unable to sweat from exercise. It also rids harmful excess estrogen – a major cause of belly fat as the subcutaneous fat cells release the stored toxic estrogen when the heat penetrates beneath the skin. As a result and when compared to a normal sauna, the infrared causes a greater release of toxins in the sweat.
So there you have it! A comprehensive approach to beating stress belly. You can experience the Hormone Diet 5-week fix in-clinic with our individual 5-Week Wellness Program. Call 416 579 9105 for more info or to register.
by Dr. Natasha Turner ND
photo courtesy of unSplash @rawpixel