by Jacquelyn J. Core JD PhD

New Year, new you? That’s what we say at the YMCA. We also say that if we are just a little better at everything we do every day then it’s a win. So if we eat less calories, how could that NOT be a weight loss win? The reality is that weight loss CAN be more than calories in and calories out. Weight loss is impacted by our metabolic rate, by our hormones, especially cortisol, and by the nutrient value in our food.

Let’s face it, I was blessed by a high metabolism. I used to say I could eat a whole pie and not gain weight. Others say they gain weight just looking at pie. As I have gotten older though, I have shifted to watching what I eat more and more as my metabolism changes. Each person knows what their best self looks and feels like, and it has been a priority for me to remain my best self, which often means passing on the sweets. The holidays, however, can be stressful times, including January when the credit card bills roll into our mailboxes. When we are stressed, our cortisol levels rise, one reason cortisol has been referred to as the “stress hormone.”

So what happens when we have higher cortisol levels? Well our insulin levels also rise, and this cycle causes us to crave sugary treats more than normal… it’s a vicious cycle. Sugary treats typically increase our cortisol levels. And the belly fat we get from those sugary treats, in particular, has four times the amount of cortisol receptors as other body fat, reinforcing a heavy middle when stress takes its toll. Controlling cortisol then becomes necessary to losing weight and to making the most of our metabolism. But how? Here are 5 easy ways to win the battle with cortisol.

5 easy ways to win the cortisol battle:

1. Exercise radical self care. The better your self care the lower your cortisol. Think of yourself as a first responder. If you are not okay, then no one is okay. The same goes for your battle with your own hormone levels. If you are not okay, then your cortisol level is not okay.
2. Watch your weight… the more belly fat you have the more susceptible to cortisol you are. This recommendation may seem like a catch 22, but the reality is that cortisol is a cycle… the more cortisol you have the more weight you retain, and the more belly fat you have the more you are susceptible to cortisol’s effects.
3. Sleep! The more sleep you get, the lower your Cortisol levels are likely to be. Again with the vicious cycle: the higher your cortisol levels the more disrupted your sleep may be.
4. Eat a whole foods diet. Here I am again on my whole foods soapbox. But really, whole foods tend to be low in sugar (yes, even some fruit) and anti-inflammatory in nature, and that decreased inflammation will also mean decreased cortisol. Whole foods will always make you feel better. Period.
5. Don’t worry, be happy. Happier people have lower cortisol levels. Being aware of your mood can work wonders. You control how you react to your situation. Make a list of the little things that bring you joy. Wear your favorite sweater. Watch the snow fall with a warm drink in your hands. Call a good friend. Everything you do to make yourself happy will also help to reduce your cortisol levels. Focus on being your happiest self. Your body will thank you for it.