How to stop stress sabotaging your health and waistline
We’ve all done it. Mindlessly wolfed down a triple burger and chips in front of the computer as we try to meet a work deadline. Or polished off a tub of cookie dough ice cream after hearing bad news.
Feeling stressed makes us hungry for all the wrong foods – bad news in our quest for healthy living. So what can we do?
“Finding comfort in food is very human,” explains Dr Sally Norton, NHS weight loss consultant and surgeon and founder of vavistalife.com. “And the trouble is, the more indulgently sweet, salty or fatty it is, the more rewarding we find it – and the more we crave it.
“It may even help us feel better – at least for a minute or two, until the guilt and discomfort creeps in. Which means that if we’re watching our weight or trying to eat healthier, high-pressure lifestyles are bad news.”
What’s more studies suggest stress isn’t just a state of mind – it triggers chemical changes in the body that can have long-lasting potentially damaging effects on our health too.
Dr Norton explains what why we crave unhealthy foods when we’re stressed and what we can do about it…
A hormone rush
In stressful situations, our brain signals that we are under threat and floods our body with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. If the stress continues, or remains high, cortisol hangs round in the body long after any initial adrenalin rush is over, and tells us to stock up on energy rich foods.
…And a Sedentary lifestyle doesn’t help
A study last year showed that after a challenging morning meeting, or an interaction with an upset client, workers were more likely to go for that extra chocolate bar at lunch.
It’s the brain’s attempt to balance out the physical and mental demands of stress. And where better to get that rush of energy and pleasure than salty, sweet and high-fat foods? This occasionally is not too bad if we have used up a lot of energy dealing with physical challenge – but not so good if we’re slumped in our chair.
Excess stress goes to your waistline
As if this wasn’t enough, cortisol can actually affect how fat is distributed around our bodies. And unfortunately, in health and weight terms, it builds up in the very worst place – not underneath the skin, but more centrally around our middles.
Not only does this make it harder to shift, it raises our chances of health problems such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Stress affects your sleep – and your appetite
And that’s not even mentioning other knock on effects of too much stress. We all know that when our stress levels are high we’re more likely to feel anxious and have disrupted sleep. This can be a further drain on our willpower – and more encouragement to indulge in comfort eating.
How to take control and stop a stress-induced binge
So if this is something our bodies are naturally programmed to do, what’s the answer? The obvious one is to lead a less stressful life. However, this isn’t always easy without a major overhaul of our lifestyles. A better option is to change the way we respond to stress.
There are many ways to do this, but if you turn to food whenever you are stressed, here’s one for starters. Next time you feel under pressure and you have an all-consuming desire for a double-chocolate brownie, try this to stop you in your tracks and relax you at the same time….
1. Take five (and we don’t mean chocolate brownies!)
Before you give into your craving, step back and press the pause button. Tell yourself to wait for five minutes. You’re not saying you must deny your craving – there’s nothing like a ban to trigger an all-out binge! You’re simply telling yourself to hold on for a short period of time to see if you might be able to deal with your stress in a different way.
2. Distract yourself by doing something relaxing
Now move away from temptation and do something soothing. Take a walk outside, listen to your favourite music or get some sunshine on your face. Or find somewhere quiet to sit and do some slow breathing exercises.
The nature of cravings is that they go in a wave, so use this as a way to ride this one through.
3. Check your feelings
While you’re doing this, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Can you feel your stress levels going down? Even if you end up eating, you should find it easier to go for a healthier option.
Continue to ride your cravings through in this way – taking the opportunity to do something pleasurable and relaxing that doesn’t involve food – and you’ll not only feel more relaxed, you’ll break the habit of comfort eating. Which is good for your health, your wellbeing – and of course your waistline.