Have you ever thought about the foods you eat when you’re stressed? There’s a good chance your eating habits are different when you’re under stress as opposed to when you’re relaxed and calm. If you notice that stress triggers cravings for comfort foods that are high in sugar, salt, or fat, you’re not alone – and there is science to back up why you eat the foods you do.
Stress causes an increase in the production of cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone.” Cortisol sends signals to our brains that tell us we need three types of foods in order to feel better: foods that contain sugar, foods that contain salt, and foods that contain fat – in other words, junk foods. These cravings are hard to resist, and oftentimes we easily give into them in the hopes of reducing our stress levels, or at least feeling better temporarily. If you’re constantly under stress, you may notice that your eating habits are not the only aspect of your life that’s changing – these new, unhealthy food choices, along with other cortisol-induced mechanisms that are beyond your control, can lead to unwanted weight gain.
It goes without saying that eating too much junk food that’s high in (empty) calories can cause you to gain weight. It’s rare to see someone eat healthier when their stress levels are high, so many people under constant stress gain weight due to their poor eating habits alone. However, even if you’re able to control your cravings under stress, the excess cortisol in your bloodstream may still cause you to gain (or have a hard time losing) weight. Cortisol has been shown to slow metabolism, so even if you’re eating the same things you were before you were stressed, thanks to cortisol, you won’t be burning calories as efficiently as you used to. You may be surprised if you gain weight without changing your eating habits, but you can probably blame stress, and cortisol, for the unwanted extra pounds.
Cortisol is a sneaky hormone – not only does it change our metabolism, but it changes where excess fat and weight are accumulated. Studies show that cortisol leads to an increase in abdominal fat by diverting any extra pounds we gain to our midsections. Abdominal fat is bad news – having excess weight around your waistline puts you more at risk for developing heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes, regardless of how much you weigh. Women with a waist size greater than 35 inches, and men with a waist size greater than 40 inches are considered “high risk;” having too much stress in your life may make it difficult to meet these cutoffs.
So can you do anything to prevent stress-related weight gain? Yes you can, by practicing healthy diet and exercise habits. You can still give into your stress-related food cravings in a healthy way by choosing natural sources of sugar (low-fat dairy, fruits, veggies); eating salty foods in small quantities; and sticking to heart-healthy unsaturated fats (avocados, most nuts, peanut butter, oily fish). You can help speed up your metabolism by exercising regularly. Although exercise may seem like the last thing on your mind when you’re under stress, it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself. Exercising for as little as ten minutes of a time (walking counts!) helps your body produce endorphins, feel-good hormones that directly counteract the effects of cortisol. Exercise also burns calories, so the more you move, the better.
Stress in life may be inevitable, but stress-related weight gain doesn’t have to be!