Is Stress Impacting Your Weight?

You’re working hard to eat healthy and keep active, but the numbers on the scale aren’t budging. If anything, they’re creeping in the opposite direction and frustration is setting in.   You’ve tried some of the health trends and lost a few pounds. However, it was hard to maintain so you gained it back plus some. Is this to be accepted as part of mid-life due to peri/post-menopausal hormone changes?  There may be something else to consider, the amount of stress you’re facing in your day-to-day life.

Let’s take a moment to demystify why diets do not work long term. When you diet you consciously restrain or restrict your food intake in effort to lose weight.   However, you are likely to eat more when you are stressed. When you rely on your mind or on cognitive/thought control, rather than your body’s physiological cues as to when to eat, it leaves you vulnerable to uncontrolled eating when the mind is distracted, and cognitive thought processes are interrupted.  Restrictive eating is likely to create chronic dieting interrupted by episodic binge eating causing weight gain. 

Stress can manifest itself in two forms, short and long term. Short term stress is what happens quickly within a brief period causing the fight or flight response. For example, a traffic jam, a long line at the store, skipping a meal, running late for an appointment.  Long term stress on the other hand is on-going. It can be repetitive due to continuous situations or conditions. This may include strained relationships between immediate family members or co-workers, financial burden, employment-based problems, etc. 

You may not realize it but you can be contributing to your own stress by saying “yes” and taking on more tasks.  You’re likely to take on more if you’re a people pleaser and don’t want to disappoint anyone. You may even accept to do more to demonstrated or reinforce to others, possibly yourself that you are strong, independent, and capable.   When you agree to do more, you need to consider how it will impact other things.  Does it serve or take away from meeting your own priorities/goals? When the task causes you to cancel or delay something you need to get done or something you were looking forward to doing then it doesn’t serve you. Be comfortable with saying “No” without further explanation.  If this does not factor into your stress, then perhaps it’s the daily schedule and the endless list of things to do that is the problem. Rather than delegating some things to others or ask for help, you do it all yourself because it takes less time, and it will be done the “right” way.  Although some of that may be true, there comes a time when you need to let go of the control and perfectionism.  There is no point in being a superhero when others are willing and able to help. By not asking or allowing others to assist, you are feeding your own stress. 

When you are stressed, your body releases the hormone cortisol which causes a spike in insulin and a decrease in your blood sugar level.  This leaves you craving foods that are rich in sugar and fat.  When you are stressed, digestion slows down enabling the body to focus on what is causing the stress.  When your mind is distracted by stress, you’re likely to reach for something sweet/sugary to get a quick energy boost and power on even though you are not hungry.  You do this without awareness of the quantity or quality of the food you’re consuming.  When you eat too much sugar (more than what your body needs/expends in energy) the sugar will be stored and eventually tunes into fat.   

Dealing with short-term stressors frequently or long-term ongoing stress, your body is placed under strain.  Cortisol is secreted more frequently or for a prolonged period causing the body to be accustomed to it and develop a higher baseline tolerance. Cortisol, as previously noted, stimulates your appetite and the insulin decreases your blood sugar causing cravings for calorie dense foods. The high calorie dense foods (comfort foods) may provide temporary relief and give your brain a calming effect. However, the positivity reinforces the cyclical consumption of comfort foods. As a result, you gain weight due to stress or emotional eating. 

It’s also important to point out that stress can manifest itself in physical and psychological conditions. Physical conditions can include headaches, sleep disturbance, GI problems, high blood pressure and heart disease.  Psychological effects may include confusion, depression, change in behavior and anxiety. 

To reduce risks associated with stress, find ways to handle stress. When stress levels are reduced and you’re more in control, it will be easier to stick to healthy habits. 

  • Identify your triggers. This may include people, places, situations, or physical objects within your environment that initiate your stress.
  • Recognize your body’s warning signs- feelings of anxiety, muscle tension, irritability   indicate the presence of stress.
  • Before grabbing something to eat, ask yourself am I hungry or do I feel stressed/anxious?  If you’re not hungry find a distractor/something else to do and create a new association.     
  • Identify comfort foods and avoid stocking them in the cabinet.  If there not in the house, you will not be tempted to eat them. 
  • Keep track of your behavior and eating habits during the day so you can look for patterns and create a plan to overcome them. 
  • Learn problem solving skills that help you manage challenges and unexpected setbacks.
  • Prioritize tasks so you can address those that are most important first.
  • Practice relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, stretching, meditation or yoga. 
  • Engage in physical activity /exercise as it helps to reduce stress and releases endorphins that will boost your mood. 
  • Drink more water. It’s easy to confuse hunger for thirst when you’re mildly dehydrated.  Drink water first and if you still feel hungry then grab a snack to eat. 
  • Have a support system. It’s impossible to do things alone all the time. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and ask for help when you need it. No one will think less of you or judge you as weak.   

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Diane Saulle, PhD.
Diane Saulle, PhD. is a certified Health Coach and Founder of Eat Clean Be Vital Inc. The demands placed on women today make it easy to prioritize everyone & everything before ourselves. This takes a toll on how we look & feel. I provide guidance, support & accountability to women looking to reclaim their health & well-being. Focus is placed on what to eat, physical activity & personal development.
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