Stress, Cortisol and your Stubborn Belly Fat: How to lose fat from your abdominal region!

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Everybody wants to know how to lose that stubborn belly fat. For so many people it seems that no matter how many crunches or HIIT circuits they do, that little bit of fat on their stomach won’t budge. Why is this fat so stubborn and difficult to lose?! If you’re eating right and training hard but can’t lose stomach fat, the answer may lie at a hormonal level. Let me introduce you to a little demon called cortisol…

Cortisol is known as the ‘stress hormone’, and is released in your body in response to different types of stress. Cortisol has an important role to play in regulating the body, but prolonged elevation of cortisol can cause a number of negative effects such as sleep disruption, decreased muscle mass, lowered immune response and an increase in abdominal fat storage… (no thanks!). People who have high stress levels (myself included) and/or put their body under a lot of physical stress are likely to have elevated cortisol, which could result in any or all of the aforementioned problems.

The kinds of stress that causes release of cortisol is probably much broader than what you imagine. Stress can be mental, physical, emotional or chemical. Below I explain the different types of stress on the body and how you can manage them to help reduce your cortisol level.

Physical stress – refers to intense training and/or overtraining (overtraining is training in excess and not recovering adequately). Training at a high intensity is certainly still a good thing, provided you aren’t overtraining. However you can help reduce the spike in cortisol after an intense workout by taking the following supplements within 30 minutes of finishing a workout.

  • Vitamin C:
    You can get vitamin C through food like oranges, capsicum, berries and dark leafy greens like kale and spinach or you can take it in supplement form.
  • L-Glutamine:
    Glutamine is an amino acid than manages cortisol levels in the muscles. It can be found in foods like cheeses, or taken in supplement form ideally as a post workout to reduce cortisol that is produced in response to a tough training session. Add it to your post workout shake!
  • Essential Amino Acids:
    Some studies have suggested that taking an essential amino acid supplement (rather than BCAA’s which just contains the branch chain amino acids) after a workout can reduce the negative effects of cortisol and increase protein synthesis. Although I’m not sure how conclusive these studies relating to cortisol are, but taking an EAA shake post workout can improve protein synthesis, glycogen synthesis and muscle recovery so it has a number of positive benefits that should help to counter the negative effects of cortisol regardless.

 

 

Mental stress – when you are overwhelmed by tasks such as assignments, exams or work that is causing you to feel pressured or under the pump.

  • Sleep more – some studies show that when you sleep for six hours instead of the recommended eight you will have 50% more cortisol in your blood stream. So work out when you need to get to bed to get the eight hours you need and make sure you do it! I also take a melatonin supplement to help me sleep because getting an unbroken nights sleep has long been an issue for me, but for most people it’s just about making sure they get to bed at a reasonable time.
  • Meditation – meditation can help you relax and therefore help to reduce your cortisol levels. There are some great guided meditations online if you are new to meditating and want to get started! They talk you through every step and help you to learn how to switch off your mind, which can be difficult for a lot of people.
  • Go for a walk or read a book – anything that helps you to relax can have a positive impact on your cortisol levels. Everyone is different, so just indulge in an activity that helps YOU to de-stress!

Emotional stress – There are many causes of emotional stress – sadness, depression, anxiety or relationship breakdowns to name a few.

  • More Green Tea, less Coffee!
    Green Tea contains L-Theanine, a nutrient that causes relaxation. Although caffeine usually increases cortisol levels, because of the l-theanine in green tea it has been found to actually reduce cortisol! So try switching your coffee for green tea. (Note that I’m still struggling with this one! :P)
  • Again meditation, walking, reading or other relaxing activities will be of benefit to anyone who is experiencing emotional stress.

Chemical stress – when your body is exposed to toxins present in both what you’re eating and the environment. Although it’s not completely avoidable given the world we live in, it can certainly be minimized.

  • Eat your greens!
    Eating lots of green vegetables helps to detoxify your body. You can even get some great “Supergreens” shakes now to increase your intake of greens. Although real food is always the preferred alternative, these shakes can help you make sure you are meeting your nutrient requirements, and you can get some with little to no artificial additives.
  • Avoid packaged foods
    The less artificial crap you put in your body, the less your body has to work to try and detox from them. Eat a variety of whole foods like meat and vegetables cooked yourself instead of packet options.
  • Avoid BPA plastics and microwaving your food in them
    Water bottles and Tupperware can leach BPA into your food. Drink from glass water bottles and avoid microwaving your food in plastic – put it in a bowl first!
  • Avoid parabens and harsh chemicals on your skin
    Switch to natural and/or paraben free products that are more gentle on your body.
  • Avoid alcohol
    We all know alcohol is toxic to the body, so it’s just an added chemical stress that your body doesn’t need! Cut out or at least try and reduce your alcohol consumption.

Since taking all of the above steps to try and reduce my cortisol I have been able to see a dramatic drop in my abdominal fat storage. I’ve always trained hard and eaten healthy food, but struggled to reduce the fat on my stomach region. Since making an effort to reduce my stress levels and associated elevated cortisol, I finally have some visible abs!

If you feel like you’re doing everything else right but not getting the results you’re after in terms of abdominal fat loss, then give some of the above tips a go – it may just be what your body needs to finally strip that abdominal fat away!

And remember – stress less gorgeous! 🙂

With love,
B.xx

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Clean Eating vs IIFYM – Which will work best for you?

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Two of the biggest eating trends for improving body composition are ‘Clean Eating’ and ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM). They are two very conflicting ideals, yet they have both helped people to achieve their weight loss, fat loss and muscle growth goals. In this post I explore the advantages and disadvantages of both lifestyles, so you can determine which will best suit YOU.

Clean Eating

The idea behind clean eating is to eat as close to nature as possible. This means eliminating processed and refined foods, and only eating foods that are free from artificial additives and preservatives. There are varying degrees of clean eating, with the most strict only eating meat, fish, eggs, vegetables and fruit. Some people will only eat paleo foods, whereas some will eat vegan, gluten-free or sugar-free. Other ‘clean eaters’ eat packaged foods, provided all the ingredients listed are all ‘clean’.

Advantages

  • It focuses on eating healthy, natural foods – We all know that eating natural, unprocessed foods is better for our health. Eating clean is a way of eliminating processed foods, which are generally high in sugar, fat, and/or artificial additives, which are toxic to the human body.
  • There is no calorie restriction – You can eat as much food as you like, provided it’s all ‘clean’. This means no starving yourself – you simply eat when you’re hungry.
  • It’s structured and simple – it’s clear what foods are off-limits and easy to follow without the need to count everything.

Disadvantages

  • You need to be moderately savvy with food labels – Reading food labels will be a must. You need to look at the ingredients list on the back of the packet (if you choose to include packet foods) to ensure that all the ingredients are clean. You will need to be able to recognize trick word like “Natural Flavouring”, which is generally not natural at all. You can’t fall for the “all natural” claim on the front of the packaging – you really need to analyse the ingredients list of what you’re eating. A good rule of thumb to follow is if you can’t recognize all the ingredients, and if you can’t go and buy each individual ingredient in the supermarket yourself, then you shouldn’t buy it. Where can you buy a bottle of Natural Flavouring? You can’t.
  • Not all ‘clean’ packaged foods will help you reach your goal – Clean eaters love their date based bars, fruit and nut bars bound with honey, clean muesli bars etc. but these foods are often high in sugar, despite boasting a ‘clean’ ingredient list. If your goal is weight loss or fat loss, then you need to watch the amount of sugar you are consuming in these kind of products.
  • It restricts the food groups you can eat – Most people find it challenging to cut out all the junk food from their diet. Some can also become fixated on the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, which can lead to an unhealthy obsessive mindset. If you choose to eat clean, it’s okay to have a cheat meal each week where you indulge in ‘dirty’ foods and don’t feel guilty about it.

IIFYM

IIFYM allows you to eat anything, provided it fits within your daily macronutrient requirements, as pre-determined by a ‘macro-nutrient calculator’. Some people also track micronutrients and dietary fibre.

Advantages

  • There is freedom of food choice – You can literally eat anything (including a whole block of chocolate), as long as you don’t exceed or fall below your macros for the day.
  • Flexibility can make it easier to adhere to – eating out is easier, because you can account for it in your macros for the day. You can still eat foods you enjoy like the odd chocolate, protein bar, or ice cream. The benefit of eating in this way is that long-term adherence is easier when your eating is less restricted.

Disadvantages

  • You have to calculate everything – Firstly you need to work out how many grams of protein, fats and carbs you need per day to achieve your goal. Then you need to work out how much of those things is in everything you eat for that day.       Although it sounds easy, 100g of chicken is not 100g of protein. It contains about 31g of protein and 4g of fat. You need to work this out for everything you put in your mouth, which involves a lot of weighing, counting and research. Although this gets easier as you go and start to learn the macronutrient content of your regular foods, every day will be focused around counting. It’s a time consuming process.
  • It’s not necessarily healthy – Just because you can eat chocolate bars all day and still hit your macros doesn’t mean you should. They are still highly processed, full of sugar and fat, and contain toxic additives. Using IIFYM as an excuse to eat junk fund while ‘getting shredded’ will still have consequences on your health. It’s so important to get enough vitamins and minerals from fruit and vegetables. If you fill up your macros with junk food, you’re missing out on certain nutrients vital to your health. Some people will track their micronutrients as well, but again that is a time consuming process.
  • It can be overly tempting – Although the norm is not to fill your macros with junk, when the options are open, some people struggle to resist temptation. Eating foods high in sugar causes your blood sugar level to spike and then drop, which results in you craving another sugar hit to give you energy again. This can become a vicious cycle of cravings and sugar hits, which is not a good thing to have when you’re on a diet where you can technically eat anything. Another problem people may have is if they indulge too much early in the day, forcing them to ration their macros for the rest of the day. Leaving yourself to go hungry because you already used up your macros is not healthy physically or mentally.

What works for me?

I personally prefer the clean eating approach. I care a lot about eating highly nutritious food and avoiding toxins in my lifestyle, especially in what I eat. Eating clean is an effective way to minimize exposure to toxins and maximize intake of vitamins and minerals. I love healthy food because it makes me feel more energized and happy. Junk food always makes me feel sick or groggy. I’m human and get cravings that I occasionally succumb to, but because eating clean makes me function so much better it motivates me to ignore my cravings and eat well. I like having foods I can and can’t eat, and having rules to adhere to. For me, that kind of structure is easier to follow than an IIFYM approach, where I would be tempted by the wide variety of foods I could eat and get slack on my meal prep. I also hate the idea of counting my food and working out my macros every day – I’ve always hated maths! I still have my cheat meal once a week, filled with ‘dirty’ foods. I do think that it’s important to have a cheat meal to keep you balanced, enjoy a meal out with friends, or just to keep you sane. We are all human and there is a lot of temptation, so it’s nice to be able to give in to them sometimes. But overall, I love eating healthy foods and clean eating works well for me.

What will work for you?

You need to work out which approach will be most convenient, manageable and thus sustainable for you and your lifestyle. What will allow you to stick to your eating plan? Do you like to have rules about what foods to eat and what to avoid? Do you feel better eating clean foods? Perhaps you have food intolerances and clean eating is the best way to manage them. Or do you enjoy having flexibility in your diet to have some treats? Do you love eating out a few times a week, and are not willing to sacrifice that? If you had flexibility in your diet, would you have the willpower to still eat healthy foods the majority of the time? The reality is both methods can help you achieve weight loss, fat loss, or muscle gain – you just have to find the one that best suits you. No two people are the same, and thus no diet will work for everyone. Experiment, work out what you find sustainable, and stick to that, because it is consistency that is more important than which lifestyle you choose to follow.

With love,

B. xx

Image: sabotagetimes