What’s the Stress-Belly-Fat Connection?

Curious about the connection between cortisol and weight gain? Learn how to lower cortisol levels and lose weight—plus all the secrets to losing your stress belly, lowering your stress reaction, and learning stress busters.

two people sitting on a couch, one person is stuffing their face

Like it or not, we’re headed into a stressful time of year. No matter how awesome Thanksgiving and the winter holidays are–and they are awesome!–they can also create plenty of stress.

You might be worried about hosting, what to eat during the holiday, or how to avoid gaining weight. Or maybe you’re feeling social or financial stress.

Whatever type of stress you’re feeling, it’s not good for you. After all, stress takes a toll on more than just your mental wellbeing. And remaining in an almost constant state of stress can lead to overeating–making it harder to lose weight as well as belly fat, aka abdominal fat or visceral fat.

When I’m stressed, it really does seem easier to grab prepackaged comfort food. So I keep healthy whole foods on hand, and I often reach out to a family member or friend to chat out my feelings. How do you bring your stress level from a 10 to a one?

A person sitting at a table using a laptop with their head down on the laptop

What is Stress Weight Gain?

Have you heard of the stress hormone cortisol? There’s an unfortunate connection between amounts of cortisol in the body and weight gain, aka the cortisol-belly-fat connection. Yup, subcutaneous fat could be a side effect of stress.

You see, when your body goes through a stress reaction–and this stressful feeling is sustained for a long period of time–this can lead to weight gain. High levels of cortisol can cause your body to hold onto extra pounds because of an increase in appetite, as well as a shift in metabolism that leads your body to store more fat cells.

In addition to weight gain, excess cortisol caused by chronic stress can also lead to your immune system not operating at full force–as well as increase your risk of chronic diseases.

How Your Body Deals with a Stress Reaction

I get stressed out just like the rest of us. When I start to feel overwhelmed or upset, I remind myself that a moment away from my computer can do wonders. My go-to is usually a walk to the kitchen for a warm, soothing cup of tea.

Now, preliminary research suggests that stress may diminish some of the health benefits of healthy eating. In a study in Molecular Psychiatry, scientists studied 58 healthy women with an average age of 53 and a history of major depressive disorder. In the study, 72% of the women were breast cancer survivors.

Each woman was given a breakfast of biscuits and gravy with eggs and turkey sausage on two separate occasions. One meal was prepared in palm oil (high in saturated fat), and the other was made in oleic sunflower oil (high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids).

The study showed when women reported no stressors from the previous day during an interview with researchers, their inflammation markers were found to be higher after eating the meal prepared with high-saturated-fat palm oil. This is versus after having the meal prepared with sunflower oil.

But here’s where things gets interesting: When women ate the sunflower oil meal and noted previous day’s stress, their markers were similar to the markers they had after eating the high-saturated-fat meal.

Because the women in the study had a history of depression and more than half were breast cancer survivors, more research needs to be conducted to determine whether the findings may be applied to the general population.

The fact is we all have stress in our lives. But there are actions we can take to help decrease that stress. So try the ideas that follow next time you feel frazzled.

Your body pays when you’re on constant high alert. Hormones get out of whack, and listening to your natural hunger and satiety cues becomes much more difficult. Learn to identify your triggers in my article for EverydayHealth.com so you can get back on track with your weight-loss or weight-maintenance goals!

A woman sitting on a swing in front of a sunset

How to Lower Cortisol Levels and Lose Weight

As much as I love this magical time of year, the holidays can be stressful. There may be presents to shop for, holiday dishes to cook up, and social occasions to attend. And that’s all fun–but potentially stressful.

The good news: We can plan ahead for go-to strategies to help us keep calm and limit potential stress eating. That’s why I asked my dietitian colleagues for their favorite ways to manage stress. Take a deep breath and read on.

1. Have Peace in the Morning

“I get up earlier than everyone else to have my first cup of coffee in peace,” says Kelli Shallal, author of Meal Prep for Weight Loss. “This sets a calm tone for the day, and I get a little work done!”

2.  Say ‘No’

“I say ‘no’ a lot,” says Elizabeth Ward, RD, author of Expect the Best. “If I accept every invitation, I get overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and super irritable. If some parties are mandatory, then you really need to limit other activities. This is not a ba-humbug mentality; it’s one that’s meant to preserve my sanity!”

3.  Drink Something Warm

My go-to soother is a cup of tea. My current favorite is peppermint, and I also love my licorice tea. Your preference might be a cup of decaf coffee or even a glass of hot water with lemon.

4.  Get Moving

“I try my best to get my regular workouts in the morning,” says Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, author of Total Body Diet for Dummies. “They help jumpstart my day, and this ‘me’ time allows me to plan my work day and set my goals and priorities both personally and professionally.” Any movement, no matter what time of day, counts!

5.  Take a Walk

Get away from the problem and get a breather. Depending on how much time you have, walk around the office or go outside for some sunshine and exercise.

6.    Make Homemade Gifts

“It may seem ironic, but I bake!” says Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CLT, co-author of Fertility Foods. “Baking helps relieve my stress and allows me to cook with love for my friends and family. Not only do I feel great knowing I’m giving them a delicious and nutritious treat, but I also save my sanity. Who wants to wait in the mile long line at See’s Candy?!”

7. Touch Base with a Friend

I’ll often send an e-mail to a friend or make a phone call when I’m feeling like I need to talk a problem through. Even if I think I don’t have time for this, I always find the calming benefits are worth it.

8. Do Something Nice

“Try to make a difference in someone’s life,” advises Lisa Bunce, MS, RD, owner of Back to Basics Nutrition Consulting. “Call a relative you haven’t seen awhile, volunteer at a local shelter, or donate your time to a worthy cause.”

9. Make an Early Bedtime

“Get enough sleep,” says Sarah Pflugradt, MS, RDN, author of Favorite Family Meals. “I can always tell when I’m not getting enough—I feel run down, stressed, and unable to focus. We are all busy, so I allow myself the chance to recharge and sleep it out.”

10. Write it Out

“I end every night writing a to-do list for the next day,” says Melanie Flinn, MS, RD, owner of Nutritious Eats. “I get the thoughts out of my head so I can have a clear mind as I get ready for bed. Then when I wake up I have a place to focus my efforts.”

Are you tired (literally!) of being stressed out all of the time? Change your course with a few healthy foods that you can eat every day to prevent and reduce stress. I share my favorite calming tips with EverydayHealth.com. There are plenty of soothing foods to choose from!

Top down view of a blueberry smoothie

Amy’s De-Stressing Recipe to Try

Relax with this recipe: Wild Blueberry Lavender Smoothie!

Just thinking about lavender can be calming, but sniffing or eating it can really relax you. Add some of the flower to your morning smoothie!

Sometimes all it takes is a healthy and colorful treat to brighten your day and put some skip back into your step.

This blog post was updated in October 2020. A version of this content originally appeared on WeightWatchers.com.


I’d love to hear from you! What are your top tips to get calm? How do you stop stress in its tracks and burn fat?

Curious about the connection between cortisol and weight gain? Learn how to lower cortisol levels and lose weight, plus all the secrets to losing your stress belly, lowering your stress reaction, and learning stress busters.
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