When I was a newspaper features editor, weekly we ran Charles Stuart Platkin's terrific column, the Diet Detective. As often as I can, I try to read it online.
Recently, he addressed how stress causes you to gain weight, citing a study from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine that found that stress -- in addition to affecting your physical and psychological well being -- makes you want to eat more, which of course causes weight gain.
Platkin says we gain weight for two reasons:
Biological Interference: Biologically your body is designed for a “fight or flight” response to stress. So when you’re stressed, your body releases hormones to help you do either. And since most of our stress does not come from lion attacks, a simple stressful e-mail from your boss is all it takes to make you start eating.
The brain sends out a stress hormone called cortisol, which regulates energy by tapping into the body’s fat storage and protein, converting it into glucose and bringing it to muscles and to the brain. Additionally, it can move fat from storage depots and relocate it to fat cell deposits deep in the abdomen; researchers have shown that the abdomen is the best place for fast energy retrieval.
Cortisol may linger in your body long after the cause of the initial stress has passed and trick your body into thinking it has done something active in response to a perceived ‘threat.’ Cortisol also sends signals to your brain to refuel your body as soon as possible.
Eating Comfort Foods: When things are stressful, we reach for food that is comforting -- brownies, donuts, candy, ice cream, pizza, mashed potatoes, fried chicken?
Why do we crave these foods? First of all, your parents probably gave any -- or all of these foods to you when you were in pain. Carbohydrates make you feel better by releasing the hormone serotonin, which is a brain chemical that makes you feel good.
Now here's the terrific part of Platkin's article, tips to help you relax and stay the healthy eating course.
* Create a “Stress Snack Eating” kit that has healthy snacks. Have one anyplace you tend to overeat -- at home, at work, in the car. Fill it with portion controlled foods that are low in calories in case you over-indulge. Also put in a few non-food items, such as an iPod loaded with comedian sketches, a jump rope.
Keep Away Unhealthy Snacks. This becomes very important when you know you’re going to have a stressful day. Researchers have shown time and time again that snacks in sight are snacks that are eaten.
Enjoy Healthy Comfort Foods, like air-popped corn or a low-calorie and low sugar energy bar.
Exercise the Stress Away. Go out for a walk, take a spin class, go for a run — research shows that a bit of exercise can help you fend off unhealthy eating and reduce stress.