Stress and Weight Management

Stress and weight management are intertwined. While your appetite may decline during episodes of acute stress, chronic stress – whether psychological or physical – often results in an increased appetite. There are many reasons that people turn to food when stressed and physiological explanations as to why we eat more and crave specific foods when we experience chronic stress.

Fight or Flight Response

When faced with a stressor, our body’s primal response is either fight or flight. Regardless of whether we choose to fight the danger or to run away, the body needs a surge of energy. The quickest source of energy is always simple carbohydrates because these starches are digested quickly. Typically, stress eating cravings revolve around simple carbohydrates like chips, desserts, or pasta. In addition to carbohydrate cravings, the body’s push for increased energy increases our overall appetite.

Higher Glucocorticoids

During stressful situations, a cascade of hormones is released. One hormone that increases is glucocorticoids. Elevated levels of glucocorticoids have been shown to promote muscle loss and increase fat mass, especially in the abdominal area. This change in body composition is not desired, because a loss in muscle mass will decrease our basal metabolism and make long-term weight management difficult.

Lower Compliance

When faced with stressful situations, compliance – following a balanced diet and exercise routine – can be difficult. People who have high stress levels have been shown to have lower compliance with healthy lifestyle habits.

Changes in Brain Chemistry

During periods of chronic stress, the frontal region of the brain, which plays a role in problem solving and logical thinking, can shut down. The amygdala, which regulates emotions, takes an increased role in decision making, increasing our attraction towards high-calorie foods.

If stress eating and subsequent weight gain are physiologically driven, how do we combat it? Stress may not be completely preventable, but there are ways you can limit its effects.

• Do not eat out of a container. Put ice cream or snacks in a small bowl first.

• Eat at the table. Take small bites. Savor each bite, taking time, chewing well. Pause between each bite. A small portion eaten mindfully will provide the same satisfaction as a large portion eaten quickly.

• Choosing a “healthier” or lower-calorie option may not always be the best plan. When we consume what are called “placebo foods” to try and satisfy a craving, it can backfire – eating a chocolate rice cake won’t be satisfying when we really want a Hershey bar. We will instead eat more rice cakes or other foods, eventually consuming more calories than if we had initially grabbed the chocolate. Find a compromise: eat the Hershey bar, but eat only half, and eat it mindfully to get full satisfaction.

If you’d like one-on-one support for making healthier choices, Boone Health’s experienced medical weight management team can help you reach your goals.

By Jennifer Tveitnes, RD, LD

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