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The Truth About How Stress Can Impact Weight Loss

We've all heard of stress-eating or comfort food. Here's how stress might be holding you back from your weight loss goals.

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If you’ve ever found yourself drowning your sorrows in a tub of ice cream or chowing down on fast food at your desk because you don’t have enough time to grab a real lunch, then you’re familiar with how stress and appetite are interconnected. The concept of “stress eating” is well-known, and it can affect anybody at any time.

The idea that a stressful situation can also cause a lapse in nutritional judgment is familiar to anyone who’s used junk food as an emotional crutch, and there’s actually the science to back it up. A complex mixture of chemicals gets released when the brain is stressed, leaving many of us helpless in the face of emotional eating. Additionally, stress can lead to sleepless nights, and a lack of sleep can also contribute to a raging appetite—and poor food choices. All of this can add up to many extra pounds on the scale and a sabotaged weight-loss plan.

So how can you escape this self-perpetuating cycle? Let’s take a look at why this happens, and how you can successfully balance both stress and weight loss.

Why It Happens

It’s easy to say that if you’re looking to lose weight just don’t get stressed out, but that’s much harder in practice. There are so many factors that both support stress and prevent weight loss, such as long working hours, the demands of being a parent, student anxiety and more. It’s difficult to find the time to get proper exercise or eat well if you’re constantly being bombarded with more pressing matters, which means emotional eating is a typical coping mechanism.

Even worse, the longer you’re stressed out, the more the pounds seem to go on—and the harder it is to get rid of them. Psychology Today points out that “stress that goes on for a long period is a triple whammy for weight—it increases our appetites, makes us hold onto the fat, and interferes with our willpower to implement a healthy lifestyle.”

The article continues to detail some of the reasons why our biology reacts to stress by putting on weight, and one of the big reasons is our hormones. When our brains detect stress, they consider it to be a threat, which puts us into “fight-or-flight” mode as we prepare to deal with whatever the threat may be (even if it’s just a sudden deadline at work). But even after the adrenaline rush passes, our brain still secretes cortisol, the “stress hormone.” As a leftover from our caveman days, cortisol demands we eat in order to replenish energy stores that were lost during fight-or-flight mode. The trouble is that we weren’t running from a sabretooth tiger—we were only stressed out about work, but we eat anyway. (This also adds to the issue of being too sedentary while in the office—there’s no way you can work off all those cortisol-inspired calories if you’re in a chair all day.)

Another problem comes in the form of eating to calm stress and anxiety. If you’re amped up and worried about something stressful in your life, you’re not necessarily going to be mindful about what you’re putting in your mouth. And unfortunately, a lot of the foods that we crave when we’re stressed are of the high-carb, sugar-and-fat loaded variety—thanks once again to cortisol, which looks for reassurance in the form of comfort foods (especially if it’s foods you associate with comfort from childhood).

Also, as mentioned earlier, stress can contribute to lack of sleep, which can work against you if you’re trying to lose weight. With emails flying in at all hours of the night and smartphone screens disrupting sleep patterns, we’re losing more sleep than ever, and that can be a huge problem for weight maintenance as well as bodily functions in general. Psychology Today notes that two of the chemicals that control appetite, ghrelin and leptin, don’t function as well with a tired body and brain, and so we crave carbs when we haven’t gotten enough sleep. Plus, there’s the nagging fact that we have less willpower when we’re tired, which means we can’t quite resist the siren call of the cookie jar.

Combating Stress to Help Weight Loss

It can seem pretty helpless: The stress keeps mounting and the pounds keep going on, with no end in sight. You need to be able to break out of the cycle in order to get your weight loss journey back on track—and that means finding some coping mechanisms for stress that don’t require you to eat junk food.

The first and most important thing you can do is make time for exercise. It might seem difficult if your life is full of stressors that take up all your time, but the reward here far outweighs the risk. Experts have found that low-intensity exercise reduces cortisol levels, with both high- and low-intensity activity helping to counteract stress. This could be as simple as choosing to walk on your lunch break or taking a bike ride after dinner. You don’t need to sign up for a marathon, but you do need to ensure that you’re getting some daily exercise. Not only will this be a good release for built-up stress, but it will benefit your entire body.

Another coping mechanism that goes hand in hand with exercise is meditation. (You can even take yoga classes to get both exercise and meditation practice in one.) Not only do simple meditation and breathing techniques help you relax and refocus, but they can also train you to be more mindful of what you’re eating. Mindful eating is another key to regaining better nutrition; although it can be tempting to grab high-carb starches and sugars when you’re stressed out and exhausted, take a minute to think about what kind of fuel your body really needs to push through. This practice can even help you distinguish actual hunger from stress-fueled cravings.

Lastly, you should look for activities and hobbies that help release stress without involving food. It’s true that eating can be quick and easy, but something more physical or social can be far healthier for both your body and your brain.

Less Stress, More Health

For those looking to reach a weight loss goal, being constantly stressed can be extremely detrimental to losing unwanted pounds. The best step is to start at the root of the problem by working towards eliminating stress, be it through meditation techniques or finding a non-food way to release pent-up anxiety. Regular exercise and attentive eating can also go a long way towards keeping one’s mind on the dual goal: being less stressed and more healthy as a result.

Have you ever suffered weight gain as a result of too much stress? How did you get back to health?

About the Author: Cortney Berling is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Tri-City Medical Center, a full-service, acute-care hospital located in Oceanside, California. She received her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics at The University of Cincinnati and completed her dietetic internship at The Cleveland Clinic.