Stress can impact our weight in a variety of different ways. From increasing levels of fat-storing hormones to triggering non-hunger eating. In this article, we look at the various ways stress and weight are linked and how you can reduce the impacts of stress.
Stress leads to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which contributes to the storage of fat, particularly abdominal (or ‘belly’) fat. Stress can also lead to a decrease in fat oxidation, the process that allows fat to be burnt as energy. This means that you don’t necessarily have to be consuming significantly more food to gain weight.
Combat this issue: Take steps to manage your stress such as deep breathing, taking a short walk or building time into your day to relax. Herbal supplements such as ashwagandha and rhodiola have been shown to help lower cortisol levels. (If you are taking medications, always check with your doctor before taking supplements).
Ongoing stress has been linked to a slowed metabolism, particularly in women. One study found that on average, stressed women burned more than 100 fewer calories per day than non-stressed participants.
Combat this issue: Support your metabolism by including a source of protein at meal times and doing some (moderate) daily exercise.
Fluctuating hormone levels in times of stress can leave us with excess nervous energy which often results in non-hunger eating (often labelled ‘emotional eating’) as we reach for food as a distraction or temporary relief from the stress.
Combat this issue: When you open the snack cupboard or reach for seconds, take a moment to consider whether you’re actually hungry or eating as a distraction from the issues or activities causing you stress. If you realise you’re tempted to eat due to stress, take a few minutes to do a deep breathing exercise or go for a short walk instead.
CRAVING UNHEALTHY FOODS
You’ve probably heard of the body’s ‘fight or flight response’ in times of stress. This was designed to prompt us to run away from or fight something that had the potential to cause us harm or threaten our lives. Of course, these actions require fast energy and the body knows that sugar is the fastest way to get quick energy. Hence cravings for sugary and starchy foods when we feel stressed.
Combat this issue: Ensure your cupboards are free from temptations that you might reach for in times of high stress and instead make sure you have healthy, easy options such as nuts, boiled eggs and veg sticks prepared.
EATING TOO QUICKLY
Excess nervous energy combined with time pressures that are causing you stress can lead to eating your meals too quickly. You might think that you’re saving time by speeding up your eating, but not properly chewing your food makes it more difficult for your body to digest, which can lead to symptoms of indigestion. In addition, the faster you eat, the less likely you are to receive your body’s signals that you’re full-up, which can lead you to eating a larger portion than you need.
Combat this issue: Set aside a decent amount of time for your meals and chew your food thoroughly. If you’re really pushed for time, serve yourself a smaller portion than normal and wait at least half an hour after finishing to assess if you really need more.
Skipping a meal might seem like the best option when your body is flooded with adrenaline and you’re pushed for time. But skipping meals can lead to overeating later in the day or reaching for less healthy convenience foods when hunger strikes you while you’re on the move.
Combat the issue: Plan out what you’re going to eat and when throughout the day. This will help you to manage your diet when you have a hundred other things on your mind. If you can meal prep in advance at less busy times, you’ll thank yourself later.
It can be tempting to reach for a drink to help you relax when you’re stressed. Alcohol is a depressant and in the short term, it can help you feel more relaxed. However, it will not help your weight or stress long term. Alcohol can lead to weight gain in a variety of ways. As well as the sugar and calories in the drinks themselves, drinking can lead to late-night takeaway orders and overeating the next day to stave off a hangover.
Combat the issue: Find alternative rewards to help you relax, such as a cup of herbal tea or a bath. Limit your drinks to one glass with a meal and opt for low-sugar options like a glass of dry wine.
If you end up sleeping less because of stress you probably burn more calories, right? Sadly not. Sleep deprivation is linked to a slower metabolism and increased hunger. Being overtired also makes you more likely to opt for quick, unhealthy food choices the next day.
Combat the issue: Work on your sleep health, with a strict bedtime and no phone in bed. Eat your last meal at least two hours before bed. Avoid dinners based around starchy carbohydrates and high sugar desserts.
HOW TO REDUCE STRESS EATING
There are a number of small things you can do to help you reduce your stress day to day.
IDENTIFY YOUR TRIGGERS
Make a list of everything you’re feeling stressed about and action how to eliminate or reduce each point. Prioritise these actions and you’ll start to find it more manageable.
STRUCTURE YOUR DAY
Setting and keeping to a daily routine can really help you to minimise stress. This should include a set wake up and bedtime as well as allocations for working, exercising and self-care time.
Just half an hour of daily exercise can have a noticable impact on both your health and your mood. But don’t over do it. Excessive exercise will only further stress the body.
Carefully plan your daily meals. Ensure you’re eating a balanced diet rich in healthy fats, protein and lots of vegetables.