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Is Stress Making You Fat? Cultivating a Healthy Relationship Between You and Food

Part A:

How Does Stress Affect Weight Gain?

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We are all aware of the relationships that we have with other people in our lives, but how aware are you of the relationships going on within yourself. We are made up of mind, body and spirit and each of these parts are connected and have a relationship with each other. If this relationship is not balanced and healthy, weight gain and ill health can be the result.

When it comes to our weight, all of the above are important considerations.  Part B of this article will focus on the psychological – how we think and feel.  Part A will help us to understand how everything we think and feel is transferred into hormones and chemicals and these have a direct affect on us physiologically

So, let’s first ask the question:

Is Stress Making You Fat?

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Most people admit that when they’re under stress, healthy eating habits can be difficult to maintain. Whether eating to fill an emotional need or grabbing fast food simply because there’s no time to prepare something healthy, a stressed-out lifestyle is rarely a healthy one. But weight gain when under stress, according to some researchers, may also be at least partly due to the body’s system of hormonal checks and balances, which can actually promote weight gain when you’re stressed out

There are several ways in which stress can contribute to weight gain. When we’re under stress, the fight or flight response is triggered in our bodies, leading to the release of various hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline.  The hypothalamus directs the adrenal glands to secret these very important hormones

Cortisol has been termed the “stress hormone” because excess cortisol is secreted during times of physical or psychological stress. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy (for when we are threatened), stimulates insulin release, increases blood pressure, suppresses the immune system (this is essential for the flight and fight response) and increases blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions can be an increase in appetite

Adrenaline is vital to increase your alertness and energy levels during times of threat. Cortisol works to also increase energy by increasing the production of glucose from protein

Cortisol, however, has another purpose. After stress, adrenaline tends to dissipate but cortisol lingers to help bring the body back into balance. Now here is the clincher- one of the ways cortisol works to get our system back into balance is to increase our appetite so we can replace the carbohydrate and fat that we should have used if under a fight and flight situation

Robert M. Sapolsky, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Stanford University states, if stress and cortisol levels stay high, so will insulin levels. This continual stress leads to a constant state of excess cortisol production, which stimulates glucose production. This excess glucose then typically is converted into fat, ending up as stored fat.

Cortisol secretion may not only promote weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Some studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat to be deposited on the abdominal area. This is sometimes called “toxic fat” since abdominal fat is strongly correlated with the development of cardiovascular disease including heart attacks and strokes.

Ok, I know that is a lot of science but I think it is essential to understand the biochemistry of stress and how this is thought to contribute to weight gain.

It is important to remember that the production of adrenaline and cortisol are essential to the stress response and hence to our survival. The issue for us today is that the modern stress response has more to do with overload and busyness than with running from a lion. This means that we do not utilize these hormones in the way they were intended and yes, stress can make us sick and possibly fat.

So How Does Stress Affect Weight Gain?

I often tell my clients that self awareness is the first key to resolving your problems. As you read these points, take note of which ones are relevant to you. Meditate and/or journal on them.

Cortisol Cravings

Among other things, high levels of cortisol can create cravings for salty and sweet foods. In previous centuries, this enabled people to bulk up on foods that would sustain them during times when food is scarce; however, in modern times and industrialized nations, when food is rarely scarce, this really is necessary and can cause excess weight gain

Social Eating

Socializing is about having fun and of course this means eating and drinking. When upset we often seek out friends and go and have a drink or some comfort food to help us feel better. Have you noticed how friends love to feed you when you are upset?

Nervous Energy

When stressed or anxious, many people want to fidget with their mouths. Sometimes this leads to nail biting or teeth grinding, and often it leads to eating when not hungry. Many people, out of nervousness or boredom, just munch on comfort food to give their mouths something to do.  This is also very similar to many smokers

Childhood Habits

Many of us have comforting childhood memories that revolve around food. Food was used to celebrate, feel better, be rewarded and even to punish. As adults, when we find ourselves in similar positions we often revert back to how this was handled as a child.  What are some childhood food habits that you think are not working for you as an adult?

Avoiding  Emotions

Another reason that many people eat is to quiet uncomfortable emotions. People who are uncomfortable with confrontation may deal with frustrations in their marriage with a piece of cake, for example, rather than with open communication. Food can take the focus off of anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, and a host of other emotions we’d sometimes rather not feel, and is often used for this purpose. Just watch a romance movie and see how the heroine always turns to a bucket of ice cream. I call it using food to medicate our pain

Slows Down Our Metabolism

Besides all the things we discussed above about cortisol, it can also slow down your metabolism and when you combine this with stress stimulating your appetite you have a double whammy for weight gain

Pleasure Cravings

When under stress, people do not usually reach for a nice healthy salad. We tend to crave foods that are fatty, salty or sugary (maybe even all of them). These are what we would call comfort foods

Blood Sugar

Prolonged stress can alter your blood sugar levels, causing mood swings, fatigue, and conditions like hyperglycemia.  Hyperglycemia is our body’s way of telling us we need to put some food into our system to increase our energy supply. Of course this may not really be true just confused messages from your blood sugar levels caused by stress

Fat Storage

Excessive stress even affects where we tend to store fat. Higher levels of stress are linked to greater levels of abdominal fat. Unfortunately, abdominal fat is linked with greater health risks than fat stored in other areas of the body.

Too Busy to Exercise

With all the demands on your schedule, exercise may be one of the last things on your to-do list. If so, you’re not alone. We live a more sedentary lifestyle than we have in past generations, yet our minds seem to be racing from everything we have to do. Unfortunately, from sitting in traffic, clocking hours at our desks, and plopping in front of the TV in exhaustion at the end of the day, exercise often goes by the wayside.

Stay tuned for Part B of this article: “Why Mindset is the Secret Key to Weight Loss”

 Julie Spain

If you would like further help in changing your mindset once and for all or a copy of my ebook “Change Your Habits: Change Your Life”, simply send me an email at julie@sigmamindset.com

Julie Spain is the Owner of Sigma Mindset and a Life and Leadership Coach, Trainer and Public Speaker to Executives, Professionals and Business Owners.  Julie specializes in strategic mindset coaching that: Makes a Difference and Makes It Quick

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