I'm sure you've been there. You're feeling stressed and anxious. And you've reached for the ice cream or a bar of chocolate and mindlessly plowed your way through it. Or you've been trying to hit a deadline and grabbed the easiest food you could find – insert 'fast' in front of that! Then you've chowed down, taking mouthfuls between typing.
Maybe you've just had the worst possible day. So you reach for that bottle of wine and pour yourself one glass, which soon turns into three.
You aren't alone! Eating and drinking for comfort when you are stressed or anxious is the go-to comfort for so many people. But the problem is when you are dealing with a prolonged period of stress, seeking solace in the refrigerator is ultimately not going to make you feel any better. And it's a massive whammy for you when it comes to your weight gain.
Added to that, stress and anxiety by its very nature can have implications on your body and weight. Did you know it can make you hold onto fat, and it interferes with your willpower? Then you have to deal with those feelings of remorse and misery the next morning... you have fallen off your healthy eating wagon, which makes you feel even worse!
What does stress do to your body?
Suppose you are carrying high levels of stress and anxiety. This can have a considerable impact on your body, and not just on your weight.
Stress and anxiety have been linked to high blood pressure, insomnia, and heart disease.
In turn, weight gain is associated with diabetes, reproductive problems, decreased lung and respiratory function, and an increase in joint pain.
So how can you overcome weight gain when you are stressed and anxious? What triggers do you need to look out for? And how can you fight back so you can stay focused on a healthy lifestyle?
Stress-Related Causes of Weight Gain
Stress and cortisol
We all have what is known as the 'stress hormone' cortisol. Scientists have long known if you have high levels of cortisol, it can lead to weight gain. Why is this? When you are stressed, your adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline. This triggers glucose into your bloodstream. This is your body's natural response to give you energy. So you can escape if you are in a tricky situation (you can blame your natural evolution for this one.) This triggers a rise in your blood sugar. When the perceived 'threat' is gone, the spike drops, and the cortisol comes in to give you energy again.
The link between stress, cortisol and sugar cravings
When your body goes through this process, you get sugar cravings. Why? Because you identify it as giving you energy. As a side note, this is another reason why you may reach for a glass of wine. Have you ever heard the expression drinking is like eating liquid cake? Wine has a lot of sugar in it; it’s made from grapes. So when you are stressed, your body is craving sugar of any kind.
The downside of this is your body loves to store sugar. And again, if you are in a stressful situation, your body is going to hold onto it. And the place it LOVE'S to do that is on your belly in abdominal fat. This is particularly hard to get rid of because your belly fat cells are designed slightly differently to the ones that you have on your arms, for example. Have you ever noticed when you do lose weight you find, if you are a woman, the hardest place to lose weight is your hips, belly, and thighs? This is because the fat cells in these areas are super resistant to being broken down.
The link between cortisol and metabolism
So what about if you try and eat foods that are low in sugar and fat? Cortisol also slows down your metabolism, which, of course, makes it harder to lose weight.
A study carried out in 2015 by Ohio State University discovered that women who had a stressful day burned 104 calories less than women who had not had to deal with stressors. Add that up over a year, and it can total 11 pounds of weight you are struggling to shift.
Fast food cravings
When you are chronically stressed or anxious, you crave 'comfort foods,' such as potato chips or ice cream. These foods tend to be easy to eat, highly processed, and high in fat, sugar, and/or salt.
Stress plays tricks on the brain's rewards system and your reaction to fat as well as sugar. Do you have a comforting memory from when you were a child, like getting ice cream with your parents?
When you feel stressed, your subconscious tries to take you back to that safe and comfortable place. This is why when I work with people in my transformational nutrition program, we look at your past to discover what psychological triggers you might have with food.
When you are stressed, you also don't want to allocate time in your head to what to eat or take time to cook something nutritious. Did you know Americans are less likely to cook and eat dinner at home? A lot of this is to do with the fact they work longer hours and are frequently more stressed as a result.
There is nothing worse than lying awake at night because your brain is going a million miles an hour. It could be your job, your kids, your finances. And let's be honest, many of you have a lot more to worry about since COVID-19 became a permanent fixture in your life.
According to the APA's 'Stress in America' survey, more than 40 percent of us lie awake at night due to stress.
Worry is a major cause of insomnia. And this can also have an impact on your cortisol levels, which leads to, you guessed it, weight gain. Any health practitioner will advise you to try and get eight hours of sleep a night.
Lack of sleep may disrupt the functioning of ghrelin and leptin—chemicals that control appetite. You also crave carbs when you're tired because you haven't had enough sleep.
A study carried out with overweight dieters showed that when they followed a fixed calorie diet, the group that got eight and a 1/2 hours sleep a night compared to the group that got five and a 1/2 hours sleep lost more weight.
What can you do to break the cycle of stress and weight gain?
Here are seven tips you can implement in your life to combat preventing piling on pounds if you are stressed or anxious.
Eat healthier foods
Carbs and fat don't have to be your go-to food to make you feel better. Studies have shown eating something crunchy like carrots and hummus will do the job just as well if you are reaching for comfort food. So if you want a snack, make sure you have healthy options available if you're going to nibble on something like a stress reliever.
Practice mindful eating
French women, who have a reputation for keeping svelte figures, savor every mouthful and morsel of their food. If you focus on what you are eating, without distractions, it can help you lose weight. Mindlessly eating a sandwich while working means your brain doesn't get those satiated signals.
One study showed that overweight women who understood and learned how to eat mindfully, and had training in managing a nutritional diet, lowered their stress levels and their belly fat!
So next time you are eating, focus on what is on your plate, what you are putting in your mouth, and don't eat in front of the TV or computer screen.
Keep a food journal
It's quite amazing seeing the affect WHAT you are eating has on HOW much you eat. If you keep a food journal, you can check your food consumption. You tend to stick to your eating goals if you write what you eat down, and this, of course, results in weight loss. Plus, you can monitor how healthily you are eating.
Drink more water
Sometimes you may think you are hungry, but in fact, you are thirsty. And if you eat when you are thirsty, you are eating unnecessary calories. If it's been a couple of hours since you ate, it is more likely you are mildly dehydrated. So drink water first.
Include stress-relieving strategies in your life
Whether it's yoga, reading a book, or five minutes of meditation, these can relieve stress. Make sure you take time out of the day for YOU. Deep breathing and listening to music can also get you to relax. And of course, reduce your cortisol levels.
Exercise every day for 30 minutes
Exercising is so beneficial for you mentally and physically. It can help with stress management and weight management. Just 30 minutes, whether it's a walk or something more intense, can help you reduce stress.
If you liked this blog post, check out my blog post on the shocking truth about your fatigue and how you can stop it.