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The science behind stress eating

We’ve all heard that we should lower our stress to improve our sleep, blood pressure and wrinkles! But can stress also be the culprit of bloat, belly fat and stubborn weight gain? Yes! You can be doing all the “right” things — eating veggies, going to the gym, taking the stairs instead of the elevator and living an active lifestyle — but still maintain a layer of fat that you can’t seem to shed. What gives?!

It’s the stress, people. And we’ve got a lot of it. In a 2022 study done by The American Institute of Stress, 33% of people report having extreme levels of stress and 77% of people experience stress that affects their physical health. Woah! You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal, I’m stressed at work but still do my hot yoga and drink my detox tea.” Well, extreme levels of stress can wreak havoc on your system and have long-lasting effects that no amount of tea can help.

When we are stressed, the hormone cortisol is released, which creates somewhat of an energetic surge in the body (anyone else stress-clean your kitchen?). This is great for being productive on a timeline and getting things done, and might feel like a bit of a high; however, this also increases your appetite. And it’s usually not our appetite for whole, nutrient-dense foods, but rather crunchy and salty foods that feel good to eat like chips, crackers and popcorn, or soothing foods like ice cream or cakes. Stress eating is a real thing. Have you ever been typing a paper or attending a stressful work event and the hand-to-mouth feeding just won’t stop? Before you know it, you’re drinking the crumbs from your chip bag thinking, “How did I plow through that whole bag? I don’t even remember eating it!” Not only does the release of too much cortisol increase our appetite, but it simultaneously slows our metabolism. Double trouble. The slowing of our metabolism is dangerous because we can’t utilize those additional calories we are consuming; therefore, our body stores them as fat. Often, this type of fat is stored around our abdomen and is the most dangerous type of fat, contributing to a variety of metabolic conditions as well as weight gain.

Extreme levels of stress are also a contributing factor in sleep disturbances and poor sleep health. Getting the proper amount of quality sleep is essential for maintaining our weight and reducing unwanted additional fat. Why? One reason is our sleep cycle also regulates our hunger cycles. We tend to get more “hangry,” experience more cravings and eat more calorically dense foods on the days following a night of insufficient sleep. Ghrelin is your body’s hunger hormone that signals to your brain that you are hungry. Acute sleep deprivation directly raises ghrelin levels. Stress itself is also a stimulus for ghrelin release. All this is to say that lack of sleep, combined with stress, is the ultimate stimulus for an increased amount of ghrelin, in turn increasing our feelings of hunger, decreasing our ability to make good decisions about food, and leading to unwanted weight gain. Phew. What’s the good news? If we can find ways to target and decrease our stress, we can increase the results we are already working so hard to see.

Decreasing stress can seem impossible when there is a mountain of laundry, dentist appointments, work deadlines, dance recitals and a leak in the roof. And it’s only Tuesday. Here are a few easy and free ways to not make decreasing stress just one more thing to add to your to-do list:

• Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Yes, even on weekends. Studies show that if you keep your bedtime and waking time within an hour, give or take, you will help regulate your circadian rhythm, metabolism and hormone signals. Increasing regulation throughout your system will increase stability in weight management as well.

• Plan in advance as much as possible to reduce stress. Meal prepping, laying out your outfits ahead of time, buying in bulk, keeping sneakers in the car, and keeping a family calendar on the refrigerator will help eliminate last-minute decisions and keep the household moving like a well-oiled machine. Ahhh. Hear that? It’s called peace.

• Breatheee. Literally. Take three deep breaths, right now. Do this at least three times throughout the day, especially when you feel the heat of stress bubbling up inside you. Your waistline will thank you.


Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Original post The Citizen

Mara Casler, of Aurelius, is a certified nutritionist through Cornell University, and holds a bachelor’s degree in fitness development and a master’s degree in recreation therapy from SUNY Cortland. She is a triathlete with a passion for weightlifting, hiking with her dog Oakley, and helping people become the healthiest version of themselves.