Sticking to healthy lifestyle goals can be particularly hard when you’re under stress.
Did it ever occur to you that stressed spelt backwards, is actually “desserts”? So it’s not really that surprising when you’re feeling stressed out that you often crave dessert and comfort foods like chocolate and ice-cream.
As well as emotional eating, you are also likely to be pushed for time and skip home cooking in favour of fast food and takeaways. Plus it’s common to lose all motivation for those gym visits as you’re simply just too wrung out. So it’s no surprise that many people gain weight during particularly stressful patches in life.
But is it just a result of poor food choices, eating too much and foregoing regular exercise? Or can stress, independently lead to weight gain? Let’s explore.
There are literally hundreds of hormones involved in body fat metabolism, body weight and related behaviours like hunger and cravings. But by far the most hyped hormone is cortisol.
Cortisol is dubbed the ‘stress hormone” and some researchers believe that cortisol levels are closely related to weight gain. Some studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area rather than in the hips. This fat deposition has been referred to as “toxic fat” since abdominal fat or being apple shaped is strongly correlated with the development of cardiovascular disease.
Other studies have indicated that people who secrete higher levels of cortisol in response to stress, also tend to eat more food, and food that is higher in carbohydrates than people who secrete less cortisol.
Like adrenalin, excess cortisol is secreted during times of physical or psychological stress as in the fright and flight response. Your body also has a normal pattern of cortisol secretion which peaks in the morning and falls around midnight. Plus cortisol secretions differ between individuals, just as we naturally observe different individual responses to the same stressful situation.
The supplement industry has picked up on these findings and promote cortisol-lowering weight loss supplements. These supplements contain very scientific sounding ingredients like phosphatidylserine, mucuna Pruriens, 5 HTP and coleus forskohlii, all claimed to biologically improve your stress levels.
While there is limited evidence that cortisol is related to bodyweight more studies are required before clear recommendations can be given. As yet there is no evidence that cortisol suppressing supplements are beneficial for weight loss. Like most complex reactions within the body, it is unlikely to be one specific hormonal path, like that of cortisol, which will be the definitive solution to keeping in shape.
Stress less eating tips
We all have genuine rough patches in life that we need to ride through with support of family and friends. But if stress at work or home is starting to creep into your daily life, the key is to get help early. Start by discussing your feelings with a GP.
Simple steps like a relaxation tape on the drive home, lunchtime yoga or meditation class, regular catch up with a friend or mentor or simply scheduling some much needed ‘me’ time, can really help.
Here are some top tips to help with a healthy diet:
Make breakfast a rule – no matter how rushed you are, skipping breakfast is a no win situation. Your energy levels and concentration will flag and you’re likely to make poor food choices later in the day.
Go for: Low fat smoothie on the run, whole grain toast out the door, or a bircher muesli prepared ahead of time.
Pack a healthy lunch – if you haven’t got time to throw a salad and tuna together for work, have a regular order at your lunch stop for a salad roll or wrap, or prepare meals on the weekend in advance. Paying in advance for the week encourages you pop out for a few minutes fresh air to recharge and refuel.
Go for: Pouches of minestrone soup in the freezer, or cans of tuna for your desk draw or pantry – just add wholegrain roll or toast.
Snack smart – healthy mid-meal snacks can help keep energy levels up between meals, curb emotional eating and stave of ravenous hunger if you’re pushing the time to dine.
Go for: Portion controlled packs of raw nuts, low fat fruit yoghourt, fresh fruit or Chia Pots.
Prepackaged meals– skip the takeaways when the pantry is bare or you’re out of time. Have some healthy ready to go meals on hand to make sure you always have an option you won’t regret.
Go for: Frozen lasagnes, risottos, or meals for one. Something you can quickly and easily microwave, so you’re eating in fifteen minutes time.
Shop with standing orders – Your local grocer will appreciate a weekly order of fruit and vegetables, just mark the must haves and ask them to add what’s best in season.
Go for: A staple list of freezer friends for your online shop like Dineamic meals, then make sure you have things like fruit toast, frozen berries and mixed vegetables in individual steamer bags.