Can Stress Cause Belly Fat?

By: Chris Freytag, CPT // March 21, 2016

It’s one of the most common questions we receive: “I’m working out and eating right, but I can’t seem to get rid of this belly fat! What’s going on?” Most people believe—and not wrongfully so—that losing weight is usually a two-part program: eating a clean diet and exercising regularly. Unfortunately, there can be other factors at play. There are many people who exercise and eat well but still can’t seem to lose the fat around their middle. The frustration of not being able to spot reduce areas of fat on our bodies is real—trust us, we’ve been there! But the truth is, everyone is a bio-individual and there are other things that may be preventing you from losing belly fat. So can stress cause belly fat? Yes. It has to do with two unseen processes within your body: the production of cortisol, and the storing of visceral fat.


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    What is Cortisol?

    Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone. It is produced by your adrenal glands, and comes into play anytime your body emits  a “fight or flight” response. This evolutionarily-designed response has been vital to the survival of our species when up against immediate danger. However, in today’s day and age, stress is ever-present and we are bombarded with stressful messages all day. Your cortisol levels therefore spike in response to everyday stressors—of which there are many. When chronically high levels of cortisol exist in your body, it can increase the amount of visceral fat your body stores—i.e, belly fat.

    The Difference Between Visceral and Subcutaneous Fat

    You may be thinking: what’s visceral fat? Isn’t fat just…fat? Your body actually contains two different types of fat: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat is stored under your skin—it’s sometimes referred to as “the fat you can pinch.” Visceral fat gets built up around your organs—wrapping itself around your heart, liver, pancreas, and settling in your belly. The difference between these two types of fats explains why it’s possible for someone to appear relatively thin, but still be unhealthy due to the visceral fat that’s stored in their body.

    If a person has too much visceral fat in their body, they’re at greater risk for:

    • Diabetes
    • Heart Disease
    • Certain cancers
    • Alzheimer’s disease

    Scary, right? So how do you know if you have too much visceral fat? Although an MRI is the most accurate way to determine how much excess visceral fat you store, a simpler test is a waistline measurement. Because 10% of our total fat is normally stored as visceral fat, and visceral fat is stored near the abdominal cavity, a protruding belly is one indicator of too much visceral fat. This explains why some people self-deprecatingly refer to themselves as “skinny fat”—they’re thin, but they have belly fat that could actually be an indicator of too much visceral fat.

    How Stress Leads to Excess Visceral Fat

    Stress causes high levels of cortisol. High levels of cortisol cause your body to store more visceral fat. Visceral fat is stored within your abdominal cavity, meaning—you guessed it—it can appear as belly fat. Not only that, but when you’re constantly flooding your body with cortisol, your appetite can increase and your desire for fatty foods may increase as well. Because of these reasons, losing belly fat is:

    1) Yes, about diet and exercise. What you eat and how much you move makes a difference, but…

    2) Managing stress levels is also a big part of losing belly fat. It’s not just for your looks—but to keep you healthy and prevent disease and inflammation.

    How to Manage Your Stress Levels So You Can Manage Your Waistline

    If you’re thinking that stress-induced belly fat is just one more thing to stress about, don’t panic! Being informed is always better than being in the dark, and now that you know stress can contribute to excess belly fat (and that belly fat itself can come with greater health risks) it’s time to take action. Keep exercising, keep eating right, and now…learn to manage your stress.

    • Meditate. If you don’t currently have a meditation practice in place, now is the time to develop one. And if your favorite excuse is that you don’t have time, just borrow a line from yogi/writer/inspirational woman Gabrielle Bernstein: “do you have time to feel like shit?” Even 5 minutes of meditation win which you focus on your breath and sit calmly can greatly reduce your stress.
    • Try bedtime yoga. Unwind with some gentle yoga before bed to unite your body and mind and let go of any stressful thoughts you had that day.
    • Block out time for yourself. Give yourself the gift of uninterrupted “me time.” A solid hour or even 30 minutes alone to process your thoughts, pick up a good book, or do as you please without interruption can recharge your batteries and give you inner peace.
    • Find a counselor. Talking to an unbiased third party about situations in your life can be incredibly helpful, either for a specific length of time or long-term. If you find that making time for therapy is difficult right now, there’s a new app called Maven which helps you connect with licensed therapists and doctors remotely.
    • Pick up journaling. Keeping a journal or finding another activity that calms you can put you in a more peaceful mindset. For some, that may be getting their worries on paper so they don’t take up too much space in their minds; for others it may be gardening, drawing a long bubble bath, or curling up with a good book.

    Now that you know the link between stress and excess belly fat, you can start prioritizing time to unwind from your day and manage everyday stressors. If not just for vanity, for your health.

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