A second post by the wonderful Angela Stathakis Porisse which looks at the effect of stress on our weight.
We know stress has many negative effects on our physical and emotional health. And most of us are aware that stress also has a significant effect our weight. There are many reasons why we gain weight when we are stressed. Let us look at some reasons why it can cause weight gain, and some strategies for determining and dealing with stress or emotional eating.
Although acute stress can initially eliminate our appetite, studies have shown that chronic stress regularly leads to weight gain.
There are some physiological reasons chronic stress causes us to gain weight. Elevated cortisol levels in our blood over a long period of time affects our metabolism, slowing it down.
Not only can stress cause us to gain weight, it also has an effect on where we gain weight. We tend to store ‘stress fat’ around the mid-section. This is known as visceral fat. This fat type of fat storage poses the greatest health risks as it covers our internal organs and can lead to many illnesses such as increased blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and hormone imbalances, to name a few!
One of the reasons our bodies secrete cortisol after an episode of acute stress is to replenish the fat and protein stores we may have used up in our ‘fight or flight’ response. However, the stress we may experience today (being late for work, for example) uses up much less of our reserves than the stress experienced by our ancestors (being confronted by a lion)! Over a long period of time these extra calories that are being continually replenished add up. Chronic stress also affects our blood sugar levels and insulin in our blood remains high. This not only leads to weight gain and the possibility of type two diabetes, but affects our emotional health too, resulting in mood swings and fatigue.
When it comes overeating, or eating when we are not hungry, stress is a common trigger for many of us. Eating often feels like a relief from stress, however this relief is only temporary, and often we feel more stressed afterwards. Added to this, stress or emotional eating often favours calorie dense foods, either high fat foods such as crisps or cheese, or if your tooth is sweeter, high sugar foods such as biscuits or chocolate. This is probably one of the main reasons why we tend to gain weight with stress eating.
So how can we avoid reaching for the comfort of the cookie jar when stress gets the better of us?
One way to avoid stress eating is to identify the source of our hunger. Is it physical hunger? Or is it emotional hunger? Sometimes we find ourselves in the kitchen on auto pilot, not even aware that we are eating, or aware of what we are eating. Fortunately, there are some strategies we can put in place. Tools we can use to help us identify when it is emotional hunger that strikes.
Before you go into the kitchen or open the fridge, or even before you head for the bakery. Take one minute. Stop, breath and check in with yourself. You can ask yourself the following questions:
• What kind of hunger is this?
• Is this physical hunger?
• Is it emotional hunger?
• Am I stressed/tired/lonely/bored/angry?
• If I am experiencing real hunger, then I can just eat an apple. Or am I stress eating and I only want sugar?
This minute will give you that all important moment to pause and distinguish between emotional and true hunger.
Practise self-awareness. When we eat mindlessly we are normally alone, eating in secret and completely detached from ourselves. One way to avoid this behaviour is to become aware of ourselves.
Big brother is watching you…..!
Imagine you are on a reality television show, the cameras are on you and there is no room for any secretive behaviour. Sometimes just imagining we are not alone and hiding our eating habits, can bring us back into our body and we become aware of what we are doing.
2. Progress not perfection.
Sometimes it happens that even while practising mindfulness, we still need that piece of cake! The idea of mindful eating is that no foods are forbidden. In my experience being told something is forbidden just makes me desire it even more. It can help if we respect the food we eat. Take your cake, or your chocolate, (or your piece of cheese) and put it on a plate. Eat it slowly, savour it, be aware of the taste, the texture. Sometimes the first couple of bites are the ones that satisfy the craving and then the food loses its appeal. Eating intuitively means listening to our intuitive hunger signals. Have I had enough? Am I still hungry? We may find that in fact, we are fulfilled by a couple of bites and we can move on.
Sometimes we put all these strategies into place, and still we overeat! There is no point in beating ourselves with a stick. It happens. Once we are aware that we may be overeating we can take a moment to look at reasons why we think we were not present, and look for ways to avoid the same behaviour in the future.
3. Distinguish between emotional and real hunger.
The next time you feel hungry, reach for that apple! Real hunger will eat anything, especially something that will nourish us. Emotional hunger demands certain foods immediately! It prioritizes foods that will give us a quick fix, or comfort.
4. Practice self-care.
By being aware of certain situations that cause stress in our lives, we can put into place strategies for dealing with the situation and reduce the anxiety surrounding it. For example, one situation which is a common cause of stress is travelling. If you tend to snack on unhealthy foods when travelling, try planning an approach to dealing with the stressful situation to stop you feeling so vulnerable.
• Make sure you always have enough water so drink
• Keep healthy snacks nearby so you don’t get too hungry when you have no time to eat
• Plan time to pack and unpack (giving yourself time to settle, instead of just rushing straight into the next task)
Basic self-care is paramount when dealing with stress, yet so often it is the first thing we neglect. If you feel tired or overwhelmed, take a rest. It seems so logical but it is something most of us overlook. Taking five or ten minutes to sit down and rest may sound like a luxury in our over busy lives, however these few minutes of self-care can actually result in us having more energy for the rest of the day’s activities.We might even find we are more productive and less likely to eat for a quick energy boost, or because we feel overwhelmed.Remember nothing has to look perfect from the outside. As an old friend of mine used to say, ‘housework can wait’. Put your self-care and appreciation for your body first, and the rest will fall into place.
In the final blog we will look at exercise, and why it is important to start moving our body daily in a way that gives us joy!