There are some hormones that we need to consider when it comes to abdominal fat in women.
How fat is distributed throughout the body and where it is stored depends not only on the calories you consume but also on hormones. If you want to lose fat, you not only need to be in a certain calorie deficit – you also need to have a good hormonal balance. In order to lose stubborn fat (aka belly fat), you need to be a bit more clued up about the hormones involved in the process.
In women, these are insulin, cortisol, oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
When it comes to hormones, we need to understand one thing: they never work in isolation. They work in harmony or against one another, but you can’t isolate a particular hormone and just concentrate on that one alone. Hormones behave differently in different hormone environments. To give you an example, insulin and cortisol ‘need’ high levels of testosterone and low levels of oestrogen/progesterone for the body to start storing abdominal fat.
Women with higher testosterone levels, as well as those with PCOS, usually have thicker waists – to name one example.
In short, the ‘formula’ looks something like this:
(insulin x cortisol) x testosterone – oestrogen = abdominal fat
Or to simplify it even more:
(Fat + sugar/fast carbs) x stress
What causes increases in insulin? Sugar and fast carbs (this also gives us a high calorie intake).
Add cortisol (stress) to the mix and abdominal fat grows at a high rate, especially when the stress is chronic. Chronic stress leads to high testosterone and low oestrogen and progesterone levels.
The ‘perfect’ proportions
A woman’s typical fat distribution is around the hips/thighs and less around the stomach area. Oestrogen makes sure of that.
There have been some studies which have developed a waist-to-hip ratio that indicates abdominal obesity in women (and men, too, for that matter).
The ratio is obtained by measuring the waist circumference and dividing it by the hip circumference. These measurements are taken with the person standing up and not wearing any clothes. The waist is measured at its narrowest point, between the ribs and the crest of the hipbone, directly above the navel, while breathing out. The hip measurement is taken at the widest point, usually around the buttocks. A ratio > 1.0 for men or > 0.8 for women means an increased risk of health complications. A WHR of 0.7 or slightly lower for women and 0.9 or lower for men has been shown to correlate strongly with general health and fertility.
For both men and women, extra weight tends to accumulate more around the waist, but for men this tendency is usually stronger.
Your waist-hip ratio is related to your BMI and the levels of hormones such as oestrogen, cortisol and androgens. High levels of cortisol in women increase the ratio and cause a bigger waist. For menopausal women, the waist-hip ratio increases due to a decrease in the sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), luteinising hormoneand follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), as well as the increase in testosterone. A high waist-hip ratio is a sign of insulin resistance.”
Menopausal women will tell you that they may not have gained weight, but their body proportions have changed. This is due to the following:
✅ Oestrogen/progesterone levels drop
✅ Testosterone, cortisol and insulin levels rise
= body proportions change
Both overweight and underweight women can store abdominal fat
A large waist (i.e. the ratio of waist to hips) is not only found in overweight women – slim women can also have a large waist.
For them, it’s not just about losing weight – it’s not that simple. It’s first and foremost about hormones and the fact that we all have our particular areas where we accumulate fat, and losing weight is not always what’s needed.
If you are slim but still have a large stomach (we are talking about fat now – not abdominal separation or IBS bloating), you need to understand that it is first and foremost stress management that you need to focus on. It’s not because you eat too much, or eat too many carbohydrates or too much gluten or lactose, or because you don’t exercise hard enough. It’s stress.
Eating too little and working out a lot are stressors in themselves.
What else causes stress? It’s not just the obvious things like too much work and not enough time for your home and family, or feeling constantly pulled in all directions. All sorts of things can be stress factors, such as too little sleep, too little food, breastfeeding (especially if you eat too little so you’re left feeling constantly hungry and craving sugary foods), dieting, over-exercising, relationships that don’t work and problems with your own body image. Abdominal fat in women is rarely about a few calories here or there – it’s about their whole lifestyle.
What can you do to reduce the impact of stress?
✅ Start addressing your sources of stress. Go through all of the stressful things in your life. That’s the best thing you can do. Not to find even more time for even more workouts – but to see how you can reduce the things that worry you. Prioritise less exercise rather than more if you are stressed.
✅ Follow the 3 + 2 + 3 rule. That means 3 relaxing and restorative activities per week (e.g. yoga, meditation, massage, sauna, an afternoon nap, a walk with the dog, etc.), 2 strength training sessions per week and 3 gentle walks per week (NOT powerwalks, you should be able to look around and enjoy what you see).
✅ Avoid having a low calorie intake.
✅ Avoid low carb diets, but find a level that you can maintain, where you can exercise and live your life without energy crashes.
✅ Avoid extreme diets where you drastically reduce your calories.
✅ Prioritise sleep.
✅ Avoid the ‘too little food but lots of exercise’ approach. A better option is to either eat less and exercise less or eat more and exercise more. In your case the first option is better if you work out.
✅ Follow the following eating plan: 3 main meals per day, 2 snacks and 1 unrestricted meal per week.