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What Causes Belly Fat? The Stress-Cortisol Connection

written by: Donna Cosmato • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 9/20/2011

Do you want to know what causes stubborn belly fat? Learn about the causes of fat around the midsection, and then use these tips to get rid of this unsightly and dangerous fat.

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    Cortisol Belly Fat

    While there are many causes for stubborn belly fat, the top two dangerous causes are stress and cortisol. These two factors are linked because stress causes the body to secrete cortisol, and cortisol affects the way fat is deposited and distributed in the body.

    What Causes Belly Fat 

    Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone secreted by the body in response to events such as eating, exercising or responding to stress. Cortisol moves fat from other parts of the body and deposits it around the abdominal organs, thus causing visceral fat.

    Most health professionals agree visceral fat is more dangerous than visible stomach fat and puts a person at higher risk for serious diseases. The most common diseases linked to excess visceral fat are heart disease and diabetes, but it has also been connected to higher rates of breast cancer in women.

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    Cortisol-Stress Link

    Men and women store stomach fat in the body in different manners. Elissa Epel, lead investigator on the study done for Yale University had this to say about the stress-fat connection: “However, excess weight on men is almost always stored at the abdomen. On the contrary, in pre-menopausal women, excess weight is more often stored at the hips. Therefore, for women, it is possible that stress may influence body shape more than for men, leading to abdominal fat instead of lower body fat accumulation.”

    Another health concern related to cortisol belly fat is the effect of cortisol on appetites. Cortisol makes people feel hungry, crave sugar, and overeat. The excess calories ingested are stored as stubborn belly fat.

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    Stress Reduction Tips

    Here are some tips for quick ways to lower stress and eliminate belly fat:

    • Exercise: meditation-style exercises like yoga are great for stress reduction; aerobic exercises help burn fat.
    • Take at least a 10 minute walk daily; walking at least 30 to 45 minutes is even better.
    • Learn to breathe correctly and practice deep, cleansing breathing.
    • Delegate unimportant tasks to others.
    • Watch fish in an aquarium, or pet an animal; most experts agree these activities lower stress
    • Develop a hobby or expand your interest in a current hobby. If you become involved in an active hobby - martial arts or dancing, for instance - that's even better because it will up your physical activity level and ramp up your metabolism.
    • Become involved in sports like tennis, racquet ball, golf, or other heart-healthy exercises
    • Work less, laugh more, enjoy life to the fullest.

    The best ways to prevent spikes of cortisol are to eat healthy, avoid yo-yo dieting and weight loss, eliminate or restrict fasting, and exercise regularly. Avoiding the common causes of belly fat and lowering health risks is done by managing stress levels and proper diet. Less stress means less cortisol released in the body. A commonsense approach of eating nutritious foods, getting enough exercise, and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle is the safest, fastest way to lose belly fat.

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    Mayo Clinic, “Belly Fat in Women: How to Keep it Off,” Mayo Clinic Health Library,

    Maglione-Graves, C., Kravitz, L., Ph.D, and Schneider, S., Ph.D, “Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight,”The University of New Mexico,

    Epel, Elissa, "Stress May Cause Excess Abdominal Fat in Otherwise Slender Women, Study Conducted at Yale Shows," September 22, 2000, Yale Office of Public Affairs & Communications,

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    Image Credit

    Public Domain Picture/Petr Kratchovil