Stress is a Heavy Topic: The Link Between Stress and Weight Gain

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stressUnderstanding the Causes of Stress and Our Reactions

Stress can contribute to aging, weight gain, illness and disease. In other words, stress makes us sick, fat, old and exhausted.

Have you noticed, for instance, a connection between feeling extra stressed and gaining a few pounds, especially around the midsection? That’s because there’s a link between stress and weight gain.

By understanding when you’re prone to stressing and what to do about it, you will not only feel healthier, but also a little lighter on your toes.

When you’re stressed, it’s unlikely that you want to devote any extra effort or energy to reading labels, pre-planning healthy meals or snacks, or making healthier food choices. When consumed with stress, you want relief and don’t want to think about the extra work involved in creating healthy habits. It seems too big a task and you don’t have the energy to take on anything additional because you already feel overextended and overwhelmed.

Comfort Food

Many people who are stressed reach for comfort foods. They’re called comfort foods for a reason. It’s not just the food we’re reaching for: we’re looking for that feeling we had when those foods were served to us long ago. For example, if you had a bad day and your mom or dad thought you’d feel better by taking you out for ice cream, as an adult you may now associate that ice cream with those warm feelings of comfort and support.

When you’re under stress, you’re looking for a surge of neurotransmitters, a flow of brain chemicals, specifically because of the feelings they provide. You’re looking for serotonin and dopamine. These are powerful chemicals that give us a sense of peace and calm, as well as trigger the reward and pleasure centers of our brain. There’s no wonder you’re looking for foods that would give a release of these chemicals so you can feel those pleasant feelings when under stress.

Emotional Eating

For emotional eaters, stress provides the perfect reason for a binge. When you eat emotionally, you’re eating to soothe, calm, numb or relax from your problems or pain. You’re self-medicating, and food is simply your drug of choice. You’re stuffing yourself to stuff the feelings. It’s a short-term solution to make you temporarily feel better, squelch your feelings and keep them down. It’s a way you’re looking to protect yourself, feel better and find relief. While others may look toward numbing themselves with alcohol, drugs, TV or reckless behavior, emotional eaters have found that food offers some readily available, temporary relief.

Under normal circumstances, food goes into the body and gets digested. Some of it goes to the liver to be converted to glycogen and is stored in the muscles during a process called gluconeogenesis. Food becomes fuel to energize us and keep us healthy. When you’re stressed, however, the same food goes through a different process. Instead of getting digested properly, the stress hormone cortisol rages through your system and drives fat storage, especially to your middle.

That’s why you may have noticed some belly fat that seems so unusual for you, or stubborn belly fat that just won’t seem to budge. As if that weren’t bad enough, that belly fat is also the most dangerous because it’s surrounding your vital organs.

Identifying Stressors

So now that you know how that stubborn weight got there, what can you do? The first step is to identify your stressors.

What ignites the stress response in you? Is it something within your control? Is it because you took on too much or let your boundaries get crossed, or did you put yourself in a difficult situation?

Once you’ve identified what’s behind your stress, it’s time to find a way to manage it. If it’s within your control, it’s certainly best to cut out the stressor, or at the very least minimize it as best you can.

If it’s not within your control, the only thing you can do is find a healthier way to manage it. That could mean finding a healthier outlet for your stress through exercise, meditation, journal writing or carving out time to relax.

It also could mean learning to say no to preserve your time and sanity, or it could mean making the effort to spend some time doing something that brings you joy. Most importantly, it means finding a way for you to turn off the raging stress response that contributes to aging, weight gain, illness and disease.

Photo from here, with thanks.

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January 2023