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The Truth About Belly Fat

Do you glance down at your belly wondering why, oh why, that flab never seems to fade despite training 5 times per week, despite adhering to a good nutrition program and despite reading the Abs Diet or that Sexy Six Pack article?

Bookstores are heavily adorned with self-help books promising the ultimate solution to achieving a lean, shredded torso. A 4-day abs workout, a 7-day food plan.


The sad reality is that the secret to blitzing the belly blubber is a bit more complex than just exercise and calorie control. That upcoming deadline at work? Due date on the credit card bill? D-day to fit into that oh-so-gorgeous Topshop dress fast approaching?


This is what makes us fat, particularly around the belly.

Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone. It is released from the pyramidal adrenal glands perched atop our kidneys upon receipt of signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in our brain, in response to stress. Whether physical or psychological, stress triggers a series of reactions via cortisol that result in the release of glucose, fat and amino acids for energy production in the brain and skeletal muscle. Wow, fat breakdown? Sounds good to me!

Not so much.

While the acute stress response is designed to enable us to deal with the stressor, chronic mobilisation of the cortisol cascade is detrimental to our health.

For example, if James Bond is faced with 5 crazy assassins with machine guns, he sure as hell needs a blast of cortisol. Cortisol courses through his veins, pumping his muscles and brain with fuel for energy so he can annihilate his opponents. However, if 007 is sitting on his backside in MI6 headquarters, listening to M rant about budgets and deadlines and, I don’t know, say terrorist targets, he damn well doesn’t need glucose pumping to his biceps when he isn’t up and about chasing criminals on roof tops. No, in off-season, Bond doesn’t need cortisol.

Chronic mobilisation of the stress response is probably the most potent saboteur to our shredded-six-pack goal. But that’s not all. Research and medical evidence has shown that unrelenting activation of cortisol by stress has damaging long-term health consequences. Muscle is broken down, bones become weak, our appetite is increased, and we store fat around the abdomen. And stress-induced fat deposits on the belly predispose us to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Cortisol tends to have an insatiable desire to make fat reside on our mid-section, most likely so it is available for the next stressful response, whether you’re James Bond getting grief from M, or Joe Soap with a mortgage payment due next week.

Ever wondered why you tend to develop a cold around exam time, or when you have some really important presentation coming up?

While initial activation of the stress response fires up the immune system and enhances mental acuity, chronic stress only serves to dampen the immune response, making us more prone to opportunistic infections, and making our brain cells function at “sluggish”, times 5.

If that wasn’t bad enough, when cortisol is chronically elevated, testosterone levels plummet. Charles Poliquin (world renowned strength coach) said that testosterone levels in males are not normal if they don’t wake up with “a boner that a cat can’t scratch and a dog can’t chew”. If stress is constantly on your mind, libido suffers, mood sinks, muscle mass drops and metabolic rate decelerates. The last thing you want when a sexy six pack is your goal!

However, cortisol isn’t the only factor at play here. A fat-storing enzyme called 11-Beta Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase-1 (HSD for short) converts inactive cortisol into active cortisol within fat cells. This enzyme can have catastrophic consequences for those stubborn abdominal fat cells. Why?

I alluded to the fact the cortisol has this unhealthy relationship with fat cells around the mid-section. Like the girlfriend you know your parents would never approve of.

Well the feeling is mutual. Abdominal fat cells respond so strongly to cortisol in the blood, that when this signal is amplified from WITHIN the cell, any thoughts of amazing abs can go sailing right out the window.

In short, the more HSD within our fat cells, the fatter we become particularly in the abdominal region, despite our effort to control systemic cortisol secretion.

So,I probably started out the bad and the ugly. Here’s the good news! We can control both cortisol in the blood and this nasty little HSD enzyme through a variety of techniques!

Here are some of my top tips for managing stress and thus systemic cortisol:

  • Use techniques to calm the mind and promote a positive mental attitude
  • Practice deep breathing exercises during times of acute psychological stress (inhale through the nose in 8 seconds, exhale through the mouth in 5 seconds)
  • Get 8-10 hours sleep per night
  • Hydrate well (37ml/kg/day minimum)
  • Eat regular planned meals in a relaxed environment
  • Eliminate refined carbohydrates from the diet especially sugary foods
  • Increase the potassium-to-sodium ratio by eating more vegetables and less processed foods
  • Consider supplementing with an adaptogen e.g Rhodiola, Holy Basil

How to manage HSD:

  • Consume more flavonoids in the diet, especially those that are natural blockers of HSD e.g onions, apples and grapefruit.
  • The most potent flavonoids are a group called the Polymethoxylated Flavonoids (PMF) e.g. in oranges (citrus peel)
  • Licorice contains glycyrretinic acid, a flavonoid that inhibits HSD. Unfortunately, this may also raise Blood Pressure and so cannot be used long term.