The stress factor
You're watching what you eat, crunching those abs as hard as Britney Spears, but that muffin top refuses to budge. What to do? Turns out, you need to relax.
Studies show that the stress hormone cortisol (which we release when we're anxious) causes our bodies to store fatty deposits around our tummies and waists. It's a defence mechanism from hundreds - even thousands - of years ago when we needed fat to keep us alive because we weren't always sure where our next meal was coming from. Nowadays, we're unlikely to be short of food. But Mother Nature doesn't know this, and when we get anxious and cortisol floods our body, she makes sure we have enough padding around our midsection to deal with whatever stress is heading our way. Being stressed all the time is like sticking an extra couple of centimetres of fat on your tummy.
Sleep yourself slim
How you sleep has a huge impact on your appetite and the foods you choose. After a good night's sleep, your body is happy with (and craves) clean and lean food - good-quality protein, dark green vegies, oily fish, nuts, seeds, oils and berries. After a night of poor sleep, your body craves sugar, fat and caffeine, which quickly (albeit briefly) prop up your energy levels. All this means more fat on your tummy, crashing lows, a sugar addiction and poor sleep patterns.
We've come a long way since going to bed when the sun sets and waking up when it rises. But this is how our bodies were designed to function. Our modern lifestyle puts extra stress on the body, which is bad news for your waistline. Another hormone called leptin tells your brain when your stomach is full, and helps control appetite and metabolism. Not sleeping properly disrupts this hormone, which is why you eat more when you’re sleep deprived. Here's how to tweak your sleep for a flatter stomach...
Your new sleep routine
Impose an "electronic sundown"
In the hour or two before bed, you should turn off your laptop, TV and mobile phone, and keep your lights low (use a low-wattage lamp or a dimmer switch).
Check your windows
If you have allergies, be sure your windows are closed during pollen season.
Sleep with the seasons
In the winter, we need more sleep due to our internal body clock.
Take power naps
If you can't fall asleep, just have 15-minute lie-downs with no gadgets or magazines.
Try Binaural beats
Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, a 19th-century physicist, discovered that these beats influence and encourage the brain to fall asleep. You can download the sounds on to your iPod, or you can buy binaural CDs.
Block out the light
A blackout blind is a simple lining that doesn’t let any sunlight, street lights or lights from passing traffic into your bedroom. Failing that, buy an eye mask and pop it on just before you go to sleep.
If you're annoyed with your partner or children about something, write it down on a notepad next to your bed, and promise yourself you'll deal with it in the morning.
Establish a routine
Do something relaxing every night before bed then go to sleep at the same time (give or take 30 minutes).
Listen to Bach
Studies show that classical music calms the brain. Listening to it during dinner will also slow down your eating.
Stretching will help to lower your cortisol levels, and release any tension from the day.
Eat magnesium-rich foods
Try broccoli, spinach, nuts and wholegrains - they'll help the body sleep.
Your body will release endorphins, which calms you down and induces sleep.
Top 10 flat-belly foods
They're a low GI (glycaemic index) food, which means they keep your blood-sugar (and energy) levels nice and steady. Eat a handful of blueberries every day, if you can.
Red, yellow and orange vegetables
These include tomatoes, carrots and capsicums, which can lower stress. They also contain lots of fibre, which may be helpful in treating irritable bowel syndrome, a side effect of too much stress.
The darker green the better. Just 30g of spinach gives you 40 per cent of your daily magnesium needs (insufficient levels can lead to headaches and fatigue). Broccoli is full of B vitamins, which relieve stress.
Turkey contains an amino acid called L-tryptophan, which triggers the release of serotonin (a relaxing, feelgood brain chemical). Chicken is also high in this essential amino acid.
These help to lower blood pressure because of all the monounsaturated fat and potassium they contain. They have more potassium than bananas, plus they satisfy creamy/sweet cravings better.
Even mild dehydration stresses your body, so it’s important to drink two or three litres of still, room-temperature water throughout the day. Try a glass with a slice of lemon first thing in the morning to boost your metabolism for the day.
Salmon, tuna and mackerel contain lots of omega fatty acids, which protect your heart (your ticker can also get a battering from too much stress) and control levels of cortisol and adrenaline (another stress hormone) in the body.
This provides a good hit of minerals, including calcium, which is important for your nerves. It also neutralises acidity caused by stress. Avoid options that are full of sugar and sweeteners, which stress out your body.
Almonds, walnuts and pistachios
These are full of vitamins B and E, which boost your immune system (whereas stress weakens it). Plus, pistachios lower blood pressure (whereas stress raises it). Have a small handful daily.
Chocolate is a mood elevator. It also contains magnesium, which soothes fragile nerves. The key here is in the portion size: one or two squares, once or twice a week is OK; too much definitely isn't, as it's packed with sugar.
Eating habits to avoid
Constantly swinging between starving yourself on a fad diet, then gorging yourself when you can't keep it up any longer, wreaks havoc on your blood-sugar levels and digestion. Just take it easy and keep your eating lean and steady. The weight will then fall off - and stay off.
Long periods between meals
If you go for more than four or five hours without eating anything, your body starts to think that it's being starved, so cortisol floods your system to prepare for what it thinks is a famine. Plus, when you do finally eat, you're more likely to overeat or pick the wrong things because you're so hungry.
Always eat within an hour of waking up, otherwise your body will become stressed. If you don't have time for breakfast, just grab a piece of fruit and a few nuts. Never, ever leave it longer than an hour.
Drinking at mealtimes
Drinking at mealtimes slows down your digestion, which can lead to bloating and gas. Always drink at least 15 minutes before or after eating a meal,but not during it.
Eating too quickly
For optimum digestion, you must eat every mouthful slowly, chewing it at least 20 times. Don't eat when you're stressed, rushed or anxious, otherwise you’ll stress out your digestion, which causes bloating. If you want a flat tummy, take it slowly and relax while you eat.
Kickstarting your day with caffeine
One cup of coffee is OK in the morning, but keep it to one and drink it only after you’ve eaten most of your breakfast. Never drink coffee on an empty stomach.
Not eating enough fibre
Insufficient fibre leads to stress and inflammation of the bowels, and this will make your tummy look bigger.
Anti-stress exercises to try tonight
The following three exercises reduce cortisol levels in the body, help to unblock and move energy through the body and target stubborn tummy fat, and regulate breathing patterns. If you do these exercises before bed, they'll set you up for eight hours of optimal fat-burning sleep. Think about your breathing; inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, and the slower and more controlled the moves are, the better.
Go as slow and as low as possible here. This exercise will help to focus you on a controlled breathing pattern and to increase flexibility in your hips.
- Take a comfortable stance with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms held out in front of you parallel to the floor.
- Inhale through your nose, then lower yourself as far as you can as you exhale.
- Pause for a few seconds, then inhale as you return to standing.
- Try to focus on lowering for a three-second pause.
- Repeat 10 times.
This is great for the lower abdominals. It's a very important exercise in that it helps with energy blockage in people who are having problems with relationship stress. Moving the legs towards the chest helps strengthen the abs and brings energy into the pelvis.
- Lie on your back with your feet on the floor, and your knees bent.
- Inhale, then bring your legs into your chest as you exhale.
- Inhale again, as you return your legs to the floor. Try to establish a natural breathing pattern.
- Repeat 10 times.
Note: if you get back pain while doing this exercise, place a small towel under your lower back and draw your belly towards your spine when you inhale.
This exercise helps improve digestion.
- Take a comfortable stance with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms held out in front of you with your palms facing each other.
- Inhale and bring your hands back in towards your body.
- Exhale and push your arms out back
to start position.
- Repeat 20 times, focusing on slow, measured breathing.