Already have an account?
Get back to the
Health

How to Fight Stress Belly — The Tricks That Tame Tension and Speed Weight Loss

A health coach says stress management is the #1 thing you can do to melt belly fat

A jam-packed schedule and everyday stressors (both big and small) have a way of catching up with you. Often you’ll find yourself wiped out and on edge. And when you do have a free moment, you can barely summon the energy to scoop some ice cream into a bowl and veg out in front of the TV. And now you’re struggling to button your jeans. Yup, you’re dealing with a case of stress belly.

While simply getting older can make us more prone to weight gain around our midsection, chronically enduring heavy stress can make the problem worse, says Lon Ben-Asher, MS, RD, a registered dietitian/nutritionist and educator at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami.  

The good news: Reining in tension not only boosts your mood, it helps melt pounds, too. And it doesn’t have to involve spending hours meditating or splurging on pricy yoga classes. (Because who has the time or money?) These easy, feel-good tips get the job done while jolting your metabolism so you burn more fat.  

Tension + weight gain = stress belly

Stress belly isn’t a medical term. But it’s often used to describe the excess weight that builds up around our midsection when we’re dealing with chronic stress, says Cindy Chang, IHNC, a certified integrative nutrition health coach practitioner at the Batash Endoscopic Weight Loss Center in New York City. When it comes to keeping belly fat at bay (or getting rid of accumulated pounds), “stress management is the number-one thing,” she says.

When you’re tense, your body responds by producing more of the stress hormone cortisol. Higher cortisol levels keep you on alert so you can respond to threats (like a car veering into your lane). But they also trigger shifts in hormones that can lead to excess hunger and insulin production which can facilitate increased fat storage around your belly, found a study in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine.  

A close-up of a woman struggling to button her jeans due to stress belly
VladimirFLoyd/Getty

And if you’ve ever felt the urge to scarf down a bowl of mac and cheese or a brownie sundae after a tough day, you know how stress can ramp up your appetite for high-calorie fare. “When someone has prolonged elevated cortisol levels, they’re more likely to choose foods that are high in sodium, refined sugars/sweeteners and unhealthy fats, which offer little to no nutritional value and can increase overall calorie intake and impact weight management goals,” explains Ben-Asher.

It also comes as no surprise that menopause adds to fuel to the stress belly fat fire. As estrogen levels decline, the body shifts from storing fat primarily in the butt and thighs to storing it around the belly. “It’s the perfect storm, unfortunately,” Ben-Asher says.

Related: On-Edge? MD Reveals Natural Helpers That Reduce Cortisol to Usher in Happy Calm + Reduce Belly Fat

How to shrink a stress belly

When it comes to tackling stress belly, the key to calm and a trimmer waist are often one in the same, say Ben-Asher and Chang. Start with these easy stress busters, which tame tension while helping you burn more calories to melt a stress belly (and keep it at bay!).

1. Bite into a banana-oatmeal bar

Carb-rich foods can impact cortisol production. Chang skips the sugary pastries and white toast in favor of a morning bowl of oatmeal. “Sugary carbs affect your insulin levels, which leads to weight gain,” she explains. “Fiber-rich carbs like oatmeal are slow to digest, so they don’t spike your blood sugar and you feel more satisfied.”

And the tension-taming effects can last for hours. A study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found folks who ate oatmeal with skim milk for breakfast effortlessly ate 85 fewer calories at lunch. (Click through to learn how oats’ beta-glucan speeds weight loss, too.)

Not a fan of plain oatmeal? Try a satisfying banana oatmeal bar instead. “I love this four-ingredient oatmeal bar recipe,” Chang says. “There’s no sugar added, just the natural sweetness of the banana. It’s delicious!”

Granola bars made with oats and chocolate chips
jirkaejc/Getty

Ingredients

  • 3 large ripe bananas (about 1 ½ cups mashed)
  • ½ cup creamy peanut or almond butter
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup 100% dark cacao chips (“I love Trader Joe’s organic pack ones,”Chang says)

Optional additions

  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 2/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 9” x 9” baking pan with parchment paper (an 8” x 8” pan will work, too).
  2. Mash the bananas in a bowl until creamy and most of the chunks are out.
  3. Stir in nut butter until well combined.
  4. Add rolled oats and chocolate chips (plus any optional add-ins); stir until well combined.
  5. Transfer mixture to prepared baking pan; smooth it into an even layer.
  6. Bake on the center rack of a preheated oven for 18 to 25 minutes, or until the edges of the bars are golden-brown and the bars appear set up. Allow the bars to cool completely before slicing and serving.

2. Go green

Need a little pick-me-up? Swap your latte for a cozy cuppa. Sipping green teas like matcha can help curb stress and anxiety while giving your short-term memory a boost, suggests a review in Current Research in Food Science. And unlike a sugary coffee drink, green tea brims with flavonoid compounds called catechins that help rev your metabolism and burn fat. In fact, those who consumed green tea extract daily burned 183 more calories per day than those who didn’t have the extract, a study in Physiology & Behavior found. (Click through to learn how green tea helps with bloating, too.)

A white mug filled with matcha tea beside green matcha powder
Antoniu Rosu/Getty

3. Swap sitting for a stroll

Usually scroll social media during your downtime? Trying heading out for a brisk walk instead. A 15 minute jaunt does more than just zap stress. It actually curbs cravings for sugary treats like those break room donuts or the chips sitting on your kitchen counter, suggests a study in Appetite. “Simply walking is one of the best exercises you can do,” Ben-Asher says, especially when it comes to reversing stress belly.

4. Meet pals for pickleball

The trendy game is a proven mood booster, concluded a review in Frontiers in Psychology. “Exercises releases endorphins into your blood stream to lift mood and ease stress,” says Ben-Asher. He adds that workouts you enjoy (like a pickleball match with friends) are easier to stick with and lead to long-term adherence than ones that feel like a slog. (Click through to learn how pickleball eased one woman’s depression.)

The active hobby supercharges your metabolism, too. And that’s key for shedding stress belly fat and keeping it off. Just how effective of a workout is it? For a 160-pound woman, an hour of pickleball torches a whopping 500 calories.

Three women on a court holding pickleball paddles and balls to fight stress belly
AscentXmedia/Getty

5. Snack smarter

We all love a sweet treat now and then. But high sugar diets can up your risk for mood problems like depression (a close cousin of stress), shows a study in Scientific Reports. When Ben-Asher is in the mood for sweet snack he’ll reach for a more wholesome pick that still satisfies his sweet tooth. An option he likes: Fruity yogurt bites drizzled with dark chocolate. They’re packed with protein and fiber to keep you satisfied and are low in added sugar.

Simply add 1/4 cup of nonfat plain Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup frozen berries, 1 tsp. vanilla extract and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon to a food processor. Blend until smooth, then transfer the mixture to a lined muffin tin and freeze overnight. The next day, melt 1/4 cup 100% dark cacao nibs in the microwave and drizzle the melted chocolate over the yogurt bites. Refreeze until the chocolate has set. Enjoy! (Click through to see more cortisol-lowering foods.)

6. Reclaim commercial breaks

You already know that we tend to lose calorie-torching lean muscle mass as we age. And chronically high levels of cortisol from unchecked tension can make the problem even worse. Thankfully, exercises that assist in building muscle such as strength training and resistance exercises help fight stress belly fat. Plus being active bumps up your production of tension-taming endorphins, says Ben-Asher.

And you don’t need to trek to the gym to see results. Instead, simply maximize commercial breaks next time you’re watching TV. Each time your show takes a pause, use the break to tote clean laundry upstairs, grab the mail or simply march in place.

A woman with dark hair checking her mail at a white mailbox
Juanmonino/Getty

Related: Genius Tapping Trick Tames Chronic Stress + More Easy Ways To Reduce Cortisol

7. Make it a mocktail

Trade your nightcap for a tasty mocktail such as club soda with lime or chilled, naturally decaffeinated hibiscus tea served up in a pretty glass. You’ll get the same it’s-time-to-unwind feel as if you were enjoying something alcoholic, minus the actual booze, Ben-Asher says. That’s key, since alcohol stimulates the production of cortisol (even though it might relax you in the moment). Regular alcohol consumption makes it harder to keep a stress belly at bay, too. “We know drinking increases appetite, which can lead to empty calorie consumption,” Ben-Asher explains.

Pink grapefruit mocktails topped with fresh fruit to fight stress belly
Rimma_Bondarenko/Getty

8. ‘Offload’ your worries

“Getting eight hours of sleep each night is one of the keystones for losing weight,” Chang says. Problem is, it can be tough to drift off when you’re massively stressed. One way to quiet your mind: Spend five minutes jotting down your to-dos for tomorrow before bed. A JAMA Internal Medicine study found that the simple practice helped stressed out adults doze off faster and consume 270 fewer calories the next day. Offloading your thoughts and worries makes it easier to nod off and keep stress at bay.


For ways to reduce stress naturally:

Genius Tapping Trick Tames Chronic Stress + More Easy Ways To Reduce Cortisol

Chronic Stress? Experts Say These Delicious Cortisol-Lowering Foods Can Help

Top Doc: Vagus Nerve Exercises Reverse Stress — And Taking *This* Many Breaths a Minute Is the Easiest Fix

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

Use left and right arrow keys to navigate between menu items. Use right arrow key to move into submenus. Use escape to exit the menu. Use up and down arrow keys to explore. Use left arrow key to move back to the parent list.