Trouble Losing Weight? Maybe It’s Stress

Our bodies stress response is actually a wonderful invention.  When our body perceives a threat, our endocrine and nervous system work together at a lighting fast speed to alert us to the danger.  We get a surge of hormones and chemicals that enable us to take immediate action.  Our pupils dilate, our heart beats fast and blood gets diverted to the large muscles of the body and this just might save your life.  This is called the acute stress response, otherwise known as “Fight-or-flight.”  Once the perceived threat is over, the body returns to a more balanced state.  Chronic stress, on the other hand, is what happens when the body stays in that stress response state.

Chronic Stress & Your Weight
The stress response affects your health habits both directly and indirectly.  Stress increases hunger hormones, which leads to increased appetite and cravings.  It also decreases your satiety hormones so that you don’t feel satisfied when you do eat.  Increased cortisol has been correlated with increased visceral adiposity— “belly fat”—which is particularly risky in terms of inflammation and disease.  Too often people assume that they have a lack of willpower or discipline when the truth is that chronic stress is highjacking their biology.

Stress causes us to reach for comfort foods as a way to medicate the brain.  We crave high sugar, high fat, and salty foods because that provides the instant gratification that we both crave and have been accustomed to enjoy.  From a very early age, our brains learned to associate sweet and savory foods with rewards.  If we had good behavior, we were rewarded with a cookie.  If we were sad, depressed, happy or mad, we were given food to cope.  You may not remember all of the ways that food was used to medicate, but the brain does.  When we are stressed, we don’t reach for grilled fish and broccoli.  No, we reach for the foods that will provide us with that quick boost in mood and energy.  We fail to remember that the junk food never really solves our problems, but actually creates more problems in the long-term.

Chronic stress also means we don’t have time to arrange our world for success.  When we’re stressed, we are thinking about the here and now and we’re not taking time to nurture ourselves through proper diet and exercise.  We’re also not likely getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep, which further feeds this vicious cycle of stress.

Avoiding Stress Eating
Changing eating habits is hard. It’s especially hard when those habits have been engrained for years.  There’s no denying that eating junk food when we’re stressed or tired provides an instant, albeit momentary break from our suffering. That awareness is the difference between setting up strategies that work versus beating yourself after each failure. First, recognize the stress emotions. Then work to replace unhelpful habits with habits that provide lasting reward. Some tips:

  • Plan ahead. Always make sure you pantries are stocked with healthy stuff. Make it easy to do right, and hard to do wrong.
  • Make sure meals and snacks have plenty of fiber and protein. This helps promote satiety
  • Aim for whole foods. Get rid of enriched grain products, added sugars, and ultra-processed foods. These foods create a viscious cycle of cravings and hormonal imbalances in the body
  • Include anti-inflammatory fats such as those found in walnuts, fish, chia and flax seeds
  • Pre-portion high calorie snacks such as nuts, cheeses, and dark chocolate, for example
  • Include plenty of magnesium-rich foods such as beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds that helps promote relaxation in the body

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About the Author
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Weight Loss Coach specializing in lifestyle transformation