You did it again – you accidentally set your alarm for 6 p.m. instead of 6 a.m., and since you’re in charge of waking your entire household, now everyone is running late. Instead of taking the time to make a healthy breakfast, you pour a bowl of sugary cereal or grab a muffin on your way out the door. And forget about squeezing in a workout…
The daily pressures of keeping up with work, running a household, paying bills, raising a family, and the numerous other aspects of day-to-day life is enough to keep your stress levels elevated to an unhealthy point. And for many of us, stress leads to snacking – and we’re more likely to reach for cookies or French fries than carrots or fruit. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, your binge only makes you feel more stressed out and unhappy. It’s a vicious cycle that many adults get sucked into.
The Biological Factors of Stress and Weight Gain
In a survey of more than 1,800 people conducted by the American Psychological Association, 43 percent of respondents admitted to overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stressful situations. As a reaction to stress, the human body releases hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Most people are familiar with adrenaline as the fight-or-flight hormone that delivers instant energy; cortisol kicks in about an hour or so later, and drastically boosts your appetite.
“Cortisol is one of the most potent appetite signals we have,” says nutritional biochemist Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., author of The Metabolic Method. Some research suggests that it may interfere with the signals that control appetite (ghrelin) and satiety (leptin). Stress and cortisol may also cause the brain to find more pleasure in sweets. And because cortisol can mix up your hunger signals and suppress your brain’s normal reward system, feeling tense could make you crave a decadent dessert, even after a big meal.
A comprehensive research study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that different types of psychosocial stress—including financial, work-related, relationship, and family—contributed to weight gain in both men and women due to biological factors. If you lose your wallet or get into a fender bender during your morning commute, your body naturally responds by releasing the aforementioned hormones – the same way it has since the days we lived in caves and had to outsmart saber-toothed tigers and other beasts to survive. We needed adrenaline back then to outrun the prehistoric predators, and cortisol kept us fueled up to accomplish this.
The stresses of the modern world are no less taxing on our emotions, but no matter how fast or far we run, we’ll never escape from credit card bills and the other burdens of daily life—so we don’t properly burn off the extra calories we consume. This makes weight loss an enormous challenge.
Regaining Control of Your Weight
To overcome the biological odds stacked against you, there are numerous stress management techniques that can help curb overeating as a result of anxiety and pressure—which increases the chances of weight loss success.
- Before eating, ask yourself why you’re eating — are you truly hungry or do you feel stressed or anxious?
- Take a walk or attend a Zumba, aerobics or yoga class. Exercise is a great stress reliever, as it releases endorphins—“happy hormones”—in the brain.
- If you’re tempted to eat when you’re not hungry, find a distraction. Even something silly like doing push-ups or sit-ups will make you more conscious of these cravings.
- Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast.
- Identify comfort foods and keep them out of your home or office.
- Keep a record of your behavior and eating habits so that you can look for patterns and connections — and then figure out how to overcome them.
- Relax and enjoy a change of scenery by pampering yourself with a massage, manicure, or just some quiet time with a good book.
- Get plenty of sleep. A lack of shuteye can increase cortisol, leading to a tendency to eat more and deposit more fat.
The science behind stress and weight gain is there. We know the facts, and now it’s a matter of taking control of the stressors in our lives to avoid unnecessary weight gain. And, aside from stress and its relationship to weight, it’s simply not healthy. While many of us like to boast about how busy we are and how much we have to do, it’s not something to be proud of. We need to shift our mentality and be proud of how much time we have to spend with our families and doing the things we want to do, not the things we have to do.