Stress and Your Waistline

You’ve just walked in the door after a long, tough day at work. You try to relax and settle in for the evening, but just can’t seem to shake off the day’s frustrations. In fact, your whole month has been stressful. You’re working overtime to make a deadline, you seem to always be low on cash these days, and your relationship has hit a rough patch. As if feeling the stress wasn’t enough, you’re noticing a few extra pounds around your waist that seem to have crept up suddenly. What’s going on?

The Truth About Stress

Stress is an inescapable part of life and affects practically everyone from time to time. Experiencing stress is your body and brain’s way of responding to a threat of harm. You can feel stress on a routine basis such as at work or at school, as a result of a sudden negative change in your life, or due to a traumatic past experience. Stress is perceived as harmful, but it isn’t all bad; stress does a great job preparing us to face a danger or escape to safety. Dealing with stress long-term, though, can lead to some pretty harmful effects to our health over time, including gaining weight.

The Role of Cortisol

Cortisol is a stress hormone in the body that is released by the adrenal glands, getting us ready to take swift action in response to a threat. When the threat is no longer observed, stress is diminished, and cortisol levels return to normal. But if stress persists for a long time, we become overexposed to cortisol. Why is this a problem? Cortisol also happens to greatly stimulate our appetite, explaining why so many people struggle with “stress eating” or “emotional eating” when feeling stressed.

Craving Comfort Foods

Due to the sustained elevation of cortisol caused by chronic stress, we often reach for high-fat, high-sugar caloric foods to feel better. Consuming these “comfort foods,” particularly sugary foods, quickly activates our brain reward system, helping us to feel good and temporarily forget our troubles.  The catch, of course, is that this unhealthy and often mindless habit contributes to extra calories, which translate to extra pounds.

Stress and Sleep

It’s no surprise that when we are stressed, our sleep can suffer. Stressed people often report sleeping poorly, and studies show that there is a connection between inadequate sleep and being overweight2. For starters, sleep deprivation can really do a number on your metabolism. It can lead to changes in your glucose metabolism, which in turn causes your overall metabolism to be dysregulated. What’s more, appetite regulating hormones are affected by a lack of sleep, causing us to crave often unhealthy foods. Sleeping well to keep our hormonal and metabolic processes in tiptop shape is critical for weight loss.

Steps For Reducing Stress and Emotional Eating

Þ   Start soul searching. Get to the root of what is causing your stress. Is there something, or someone, in your life that elicits your stress? Are you feeling overwhelmed by your job or obligations at home? You can’t always eliminate your stress, but often there are simple adjustments you can make to ease the situation and lessen the emotional burden.

Þ   Address Your Stress.  Regularly practice relaxation techniques. Focused breathing, mindfulness meditation, yoga, and guided imagery are scientifically proven to reduce stress.

Þ   Learn your true hunger cues. Sometimes we think we're hungry, when in actuality we are simply bored.  Instead of turning to food at the first sign of discomfort, ask yourself whether you are truly hungry. If you're not, find another activity to fill your time.

Þ   Keep the right foods at home. Having junk food around will make it much harder to stay on track with eating when you're stressed. Instead, fill your pantry with healthy alternatives of your favorite foods. Enjoy whole grain chips as a substitute for potato chips, indulge in yoghurt with fresh fruit instead of ice cream, and snack on nutrition bars rather than cookies.