Why You’re Lean but Still Have Too Much Belly Fat

image of a woman pinching her belly fat

You exercise and eat right most of the time. Through a combination of watching what you eat and exercising, you’ve even managed to get to your ideal body weight. But, you still have annoying belly fat. No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to vanquish that belly. What makes that belly fat persist despite leading a healthy lifestyle?

You’re not waging a battle against a tummy bulge alone. Many women, even slender ones, struggle with this issue. If you’re doing everything else right, the problem could be an issue that most of us deal with in one form or another – stress. According to Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D. a researcher at Yale, psychological stress and author of a study on the topic, the everyday stressors that most of us face every day, can trigger fat storage around the waist and tummy. One way it does this is by boosting the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

In the study, slender women with more tummy fat produced more cortisol when asked to do stressful tasks in a laboratory relative to slender women without excess belly fat. We each have our threshold for stress, beyond which not managing it can be harmful to our health. Some people can handle higher levels of stress without experiencing sustained elevations in cortisol, while others overproduce cortisol in response to even minor life stressors.

What’s the Big Deal about Cortisol?

Cortisol, often referred to as a stress hormone, isn’t all bad. You couldn’t survive without it. But, there’s a “sweet spot” for this hormone produced by the adrenal glands just above your kidneys. The adrenal glands get stimulated by the brain to release cortisol in response to a variety of factors, including stress. Too little can have negative consequences, but so can too much. Cortisol plays key roles in blood sugar regulation, immune function, fluid balance, and inflammation. Normally, you release cortisol when you’re under acute stress, but the levels slowly return to normal. If they don’t, cortisol may stay at higher than desirable levels.

Why is higher cortisol a problem? Chronic elevation in cortisol can lead to weight gain, particularly around the upper tummy and waist. It does this in several ways – by boosting hunger and sugar cravings and by reducing insulin sensitivity.  High levels of cortisol, due to stress, helps explain why you crave comfort foods when you’re stressed out. Unfortunately, overeating in response to cortisol’s beckoning only worsens the problem by creating insulin resistance, belly fat and stress. Cortisol overproduction & stress-related eating can turn into a vicious cycle that’s harmful to your health and your waistline. Increased cortisol also interferes with healthy immune function, so that you’re more susceptible to illness. It also impairs digestion.

Why Belly Fat is a Health Risk

Storing fat around the waistline and tummy is more than an aesthetic issue – it’s also a health concern. A waist size in women greater than 32 inches is a red flag from a health standpoint. That’s because a large waist size is linked with metabolic abnormalities, including insulin resistance and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Carrying body fat around the waist and tummy is called the android pattern of fat distribution. You see this pattern more often in middle-aged men and women after menopause.

Android fat distribution is linked with more visceral fat, deep fat that deposits around organs, including the liver, where it can cause health issues, like fatty liver. Deposits of fat around the waist, what we sometimes call a muffin top, is a marker of more visceral fat.  Visceral fat cells produce various cytokines, chemicals that promote inflammation. In metabolically healthy, younger women, a gynoid pattern is more common, where fat clusters around the hips and thighs. This type of fat is typically subcutaneous, just under the skin, rather than deeper in the abdominal cavity. It’s the type you can pinch between your fingers. From a health standpoint, it’s safer to have fat around the thighs than around the tummy.

Taming Cortisol and Belly Fat

So, how can you control cortisol before it becomes a health issue? You release cortisol when you’re stressed because your body perceives danger or feels threatened. Often these threats aren’t a true physical threat but your body’s overreaction to something in your environment. One way to tame the cortisol response is to learn stress reduction techniques. Meditation, Tai-chi, and yoga are three mind-body exercises that help with stress management. Studies suggest that yoga and meditation may lower blood levels of cortisol. This may explain why yoga and meditation help people with anxiety or depression, both of which are associated with greater cortisol levels.

Getting enough sleep helps to lower cortisol, as a lack of sleep places stress on the body. Exercise also helps tame the cortisol response, although the response is J-shaped. In moderate amounts, exercise lowers cortisol and ease stress. However, overtraining can have the opposite effect – it can trigger a rise in cortisol. Eating a balanced diet and one that contains sufficient protein stabilizes blood sugar and that helps prevent a stress-related increase in cortisol. Avoid sugar as well. Plus, it’s important to get sufficient quantities of all of the vitamins and minerals your body needs for optimal function, especially magnesium and vitamin C.  Magnesium and vitamin C play a particularly important role in how your body responds to stress.

There’s another reason to tame the cortisol response, studies suggest that excess cortisol can damage the hippocampus, a portion of the brain involved in memory and learning. On the plus side, magnesium seems to suppress the release of cortisol and may help reduce their entry into the brain. Some studies also suggest that vitamin C helps reduce cortisol release in response to intense exercise.

The Bottom Line

Now, you know how stress makes it harder to keep your waistline slender and that belly fat is a health risk factor as well. Make sure you’re managing stress and not letting stress manage you!



ScienceDaily.com. “Stress May Cause Excess Abdominal Fat In Otherwise Slender Women, Study Conducted At Yale Shows”
Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 11 No. 11 P. 38. November 2009.
University Health News. “How to Recognize High Cortisol Symptoms”
Stress. 2015 Aug 13:1-9.
J Med Assoc Thai. 2013 Jan;96 Suppl 1: S90-5.
Berkeley Wellness. “Mind-Body Exercise: Tai Chi and Yoga”
WebMD. “Why Yoga, Tai Chi, and Meditation Are Good for You”
Indian J Psychiatry. 2013 Jul; 55(Suppl 3): S405–S408.
Psychology Today. “Magnesium and the Brain: The Original Chill Pill”
Int J Sports Med. 2001 Oct;22(7):537-43.


Related Articles:

Is Cardiovascular Exercise Really Effective for Weight Loss?

What Impact Does Exercise Intensity Have on Abdominal Fat Loss?

Does Stress Make It Harder to Lose Body Fat?

When Being Normal Weight is Unhealthy

5 Ways Psychological Stress Leads to Weight Gain

5 Common Myths About Belly Fat – Busted

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