While one of the best things about getting a little older is giving far less f***s about your body, for some of us weight gain is still a sucky issue, from both a health perspective and an aesthetic one. Unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle – you can’t for the life if you figure out why your jeans are a little tighter so you’re stressed – but the stress could be the very thing that’s causing it. Christ alive, it’s enough to make you give up and reach for the cheese.
So, according to Michelle Hall, founder of New Zealand Mind Body Nutrition practice, Sage Wellness, stress could be hindering the weight loss efforts of thousands of Kiwis. Financial pressure, relationships and work are all hot buttons, and there has been the added uncertainty of Covid-19 – an extra big scoop of stress for many Kiwis.
April is actually International Stress Awareness Month – and Michelle wants to use the milestone to increase understanding of the link between stress and weight gain, and what New Zealanders can do about it.
According to Michelle, who encourages a non-diet, holistic approach to health, most people understand the role of food and exercise. However, stress is often overlooked when it comes to nutrition and weight management.
“When we experience continuous stress, our body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to prepare our body for action. When hormones such as cortisol remain high, insulin levels increase, which in effect leads to a drop in our blood sugar levels,” says Michelle.
“This makes us more susceptible to eating “comforting foods” such as chocolate or ice cream because we begin to crave sugary, fatty foods, and therefore we’re more likely to reach for those comfort foods.”
Can I get an AMEN.
Michelle explains that it’s not just about the extra calories either. Stress can actually slow the body’s ability to burn fat and build muscle.
“You can eat the healthiest food and most balanced diet but if it is eaten in any degree of stress you may have decreased the nutritional value of your meal which can adversely affect your metabolism,” she says.
“The same switch that turns on the stress response in the brain – the sympathetic nervous system, turns off digestion – reduces nutrient assimilation, and slows down day in day out calorie burning ability, it decreases our ability to burn fat and build muscle, deregulates mood, releases stress chemicals including insulin and cortisol which can increase fat storage, decreases blood flow to the gut and so much more.”
This is reflected in global research, including a 2015 study from State Ohio University, which found that, on average, women who reported one or more stressors during the prior 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women. This could result in an 11-pound (5kgs) weight gain in one year.
Oh so THAT’S what’s happened.
Michelle has pulled together a number of tips to help New Zealanders get on top of stress-induced weight gain:
- Pinpoint the source. One version of stress is real. Financial, cultural, relationships, work. The other is self-chosen. These stressors are thoughts we think and judgements we make about our self, our body, our life and the people around us. For example, ‘I am not good enough’, ‘I am not loveable enough’, ‘I am too big’, ‘I am too skinny’, ‘I am not perfect’, ‘I have big thighs’, ‘I should look different’, ‘I should act differently’.
- Practice mindful eating. Focusing on what you’re eating – without distractions – may help lower stress, promote weight loss, and prevent weight gain. One study found that overweight women who had mindfulness-based stress and nutrition training were better able to avoid emotional eating, and had lower stress levels, which led to less belly fat over time.
- Ditch the diet. Food deprivation is a stressor that could be causing us to hang onto weight. When we deprive ourselves of food, i.e. diet, skip meals, skip food groups, or artificially suppress our appetite to try to lose weight, or when we are nutrient deficient because of a poor-quality diet, or a lack of essential fatty acids because of a fat phobia, the survival response can be activated. In such cases the deprivation drives us to seek food as the body senses a lack of food, our appetite becomes heightened, and we struggle to control our impulses or appetite and erroneously believe there is something wrong with us.
- Make exercise a priority. Exercising is a critical component of stress reduction and weight management. It can help you address both issues simultaneously, so it’s essential for warding off stress-related weight gain. Whether you go for a walk during your lunch break or hit the gym after work, incorporate regular exercise into your routine. Just make sure it is movement you enjoy. If you pick a movement based purely on trying to burn more calories, this can also trigger a stress response. So pick a movement that makes you feel good and stick with it!
- Incorporate stress-relief strategies into your daily life. Whether you enjoy yoga or you find solace in reading a good book, try adding simple stress relievers like taking a deep breath, listening to music, or going on a walk into your daily routine. Doing so can reduce your cortisol levels, helping you manage your weight.
If you would like to talk further about healing your relationship with food, overcoming food addiction, emotional or binge eating or anything else related to mind body nutrition, book a free 15 minute consultation with Michelle by visiting sagewellness.co.nz.