A few weeks ago I wrote about the connections between stress and body fat. I’d been doing some reading about it last year after finishing my 2010 autumn weight loss stint when I spent 3 months on a very hard fat-cutting diet.
Traditionally I have found that I’ve carried a lump of fat just above the top of each hip. This fat store is further pronounced on my left hip by the scar I carry from a major hip operation when I was still a baby. The scar cuts deeply into my body line and the operation pushed one of the quad muscles across from the side of my leg to the front. All this rearrangement means there is no space in my upper hip to carry the fat that is found there on my right hip. Instead the fat is squeezed up into an even more noticeable lump just above the deep dip into my body from the top of the scar.
While I would like to think I’m not too body conscious when it comes to my image, I have always hated these fat stores and I particularly dislike the way they stand out in my cycling lycra. I had really hoped that my 3 month diet would clear it up but, while they decreased in size to an almost-acceptable level, they would not go. I was carrying minimal levels of body fat elsewhere but I just could not get those two stubborn spots to leave me.
Since I had been so definitively unable to clear the fat at that spot above the hip I wondered if this was my cortisol-related fat store and if there was no way to eliminate it while I was still working far too hard and my stress levels were so high.
The new life experiment
One of the self-experimentation pieces I had ear-marked for the beginning of my new life in January this year was watching what happened with that fat store. Would it reduce? If so, would it reduce of its own accord or would it just be that the fat store would disappear when I started dieting?
For those who are not up to speed on quite how drastically my life changed at the start of 2012, I stopped my full time desk job. In addition to the full time desk job I had been teaching violin and piano at the weekends and, when I could spare the time, working as a performing violinist. With the blog as well that left me no spare time to relax.
By the end of 2011, after a decade of careful spending and saving, I had sufficient funds stored up to have cleared my debt and enabled myself to drastically reduce my monthly budget. As a result I could remove the desk job and reduce my working week to the two days of teaching, leaving me free to move about, relax and focus on the things that really mattered to me in life. This had, in one form or another, always been my plan.
To start with, I made some major errors in the first few months:
- I immediately started a calorie-restricted diet. It wasn’t conscious – in fact it began as a 100% strict Paleo regime combined with an “I’ll eat one meal a day when I’m hungry” approach. As often happens with those sorts of things, especially when approaching it after so many years of stress and a relationship with food that was still messed up from the diets I’d done over the previous 5 years, I took it too far. I accidentally cut my calories as well as cleaning up my diet. Naturally I lost some weight but while I was mentally starting to relax, my body was still a bit stressed. I expect the intermittent fasting also stressed my body.
- I agreed to go back to my former employer to do one day a week for ten days in mid-February. This doesn’t sound stressful, but they asked me to work in London which meant a 5.30am start each Monday to be there for 9am and I often then stayed over with friends in London afterwards, getting a late night Monday night, frequently with alcohol (I rarely drink), and an early start on Tuesdays because my friends all had to go to work, before trekking home again. Frankly, it didn’t do me much good. Chris and I could both see the signs of my old stress and tension reappearing in bags under my eyes, catching a cold and general fatigue hitting me and my workouts for days after getting back home each week.
The first error caused me to fall off the bandwagon in a major way in mid-February when I both turned thirty and added the physically stressful Monday London trips. Serious twice- (or thrice-) weekly cheesecake consumption and other naughties occurred for two or three weeks and all the weight I’d accidentally lost in the first month came roaring back on, plus an extra kilo.
Getting hold of myself
In March I got a grip on myself. I successfully went 100% clean Paleo because I’d started seeing a skin reaction to something and I wanted to clear it up. I was also becoming increasingly miserable which seemed ridiculous given the great life circumstance I was in – aside from Monday’s London work. I was convinced that the bad stuff in my diet was causing both the blotchiness and the depression.
For the back end of March I had a couple of weeks off the London work so I sorted my head out and started relaxing properly and spending more time out on the allotment. I also cut my training down a bit so that I had more time and less physical stress on my body.
I ate well and carefully, losing a little weight but not much, and then decided to start dieting. Just to see what would happen.
My first weigh and measure session for the new diet was fascinating. I weighed the same as I had at the start of January, having put the January weight loss back on. But something was different. My waist had noticeably increased in size, and that’s an area I know the weight falls off me when I start dieting, while my upper hip area, that area I had always struggled with, was decreasing. It was only slight, but it was encouraging.
Despite some lingering stressors, I knew that the stress in my life was much lower than it had been last year and it looked like that upper hip fat really was stress-related. Remove some of the stress and suddenly my total body fat levels remained roughly the same but the distribution had changed.
Two weeks into tough dieting and I had dropped 3kg of body weight but the upper hip measurement suddenly stopped decreasing as quickly as the other measurements did. My strength in the gym also dropped off a cliff so I took this as a sign that my body had taken all the stress it was prepared to take from the dieting for now.
I increased my calorie intake and started watching the scales like a hawk each morning to ensure I was eating and training within maintenance mode, consuming sufficient calories to balance my varied activity levels and keep my weight within half a kilo of my starting weight.
I caught it at the right time – my performance in the gym instantly went back to where it should have been and within days I felt much better again. I also noticed a bit more fat “dropping” off me. While my weight and mid hip measurements remained the same my other measurements dropped, most notably (again), my upper hip. My only explanation is that I gained some muscle over this one month period.
Having just about recovered from flu, this week has seen the start of the next two week fat loss phase, now that my body has got used to this new body weight as a “normal” weight. I’ll be able to use my gym performance and this upper hip measurement to watch for the moment that the dieting causes too much stress in my body again.
This is my own personal empirical evidence that there is such a thing as stress or cortisol-related fat retention.
I find it difficult to explain to people quite how de-stressed I feel these days compared to before. I’m aware that a lot of the previous stress in my life wouldn’t be classed as “stress” by many people who suffer from really high-stress jobs.
In modern western living what we call “stress” is a more intense concept and I think we lose sight of what stress really is. Modern living creates a base level of stress when compared to living naturally with plenty of outdoors time, sitting back when our bodies call for it, waking when our bodies wake us, eating when we need food, not in that 10 minute gap in our busy schedule.
I’m not completely free of every trapping of modern living, but I sure am close and my hips are proving it!