5 Interesting Reasons You Gain Weight When You're Stressed (and 4 Simple Ways to Avoid It)
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Have you ever found yourself mindlessly eating a tub of ice cream while you brood about your latest romantic rejection or eating a hamburger and fries in front of your computer as you furiously try to make a work deadline? Perhaps you’re a busy mom, eating cookies in your car as you shuttle the kids back and forth to a slew of activities. Or you’re a small business owner desperately trying to make ends meet when you suddenly realize your waistline has expanded. If you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios, you’re not alone and it’s probably not your fault. Stress that goes on for a long period is a triple whammy for weight—it increases our appetites, makes us hold onto the fat, and interferes with our willpower to implement a healthy lifestyle.
Below are the 5 major reasons stress leads to weight gain and four great research-based coping strategies you can use to fight back.
When your brain detects the presence of a threat, no matter if it is a snake in the grass, a grumpy boss, or a big credit card bill, it triggers the release of a cascade of chemicals, including adrenaline, CRH, and cortisol. Your brain and body prepare to handle the threat by making you feel alert, ready for action and able to withstand an injury. In the short-term, adrenaline helps you feel less hungry as your blood flows away from the internal organs and to your large muscles to prepare for “fight or flight.” However, once the effects of adrenaline wear off, cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” hangs around and starts signaling the body to replenish your food supply. Fighting off wild animals, like our ancestors did, used up a lot of energy, so their bodies needed more stores of fat and glucose. Today’s human, who sits on the couch worrying about how to pay the bill or works long hours at the computer to make the deadline, does not work off much energy at all dealing with the stressor! Unfortunately, we are stuck with a neuroendocrine system that didn’t get the update, so your brain is still going to tell you to reach for that plate of cookies anyway.
2. Belly Fat
In the days when our ancestors were fighting off tigers and famine, their bodies adapted by learning to store fat supplies for the long haul. The unfortunate result for you and me is that when we are chronically stressed by life crises and work-life demands, we are prone to getting an extra layer of “visceral fat” deep in our bellies. Your belly has an ample supply of blood vessels and cortisol receptors to make the whole process flow more efficiently. The downside is that excess belly fat is unhealthy and difficult to get rid of. The fat releases chemicals triggering inflammation, which increases the likelihood that we will develop heart disease or diabetes. And it can make it more difficult to fit into those lovely jeans you splurged on, leading to more stress about money wasted! Unfortunately, excess cortisol also slows down your metabolism, because your body wants to maintain an adequate supply of glucose for all that hard mental and physical work dealing with the threat.
When we have a surge of adrenaline as part of our fight/flight response, we get fidgety and activated. Adrenaline is the reason for the “wired up” feeling we get when we’re stressed. While we may burn off some extra calories fidgeting or running around cleaning because we can’t sit still, anxiety can also trigger “emotional eating.” Overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stress or as a way to calm down is a very common response. In the most recent American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America:” survey, a whopping 40% of respondents reported dealing with stress in this way, while 42% reported watching television for more than 2 hours a day to deal with stress. Being a couch potato also increases the temptation to overeat and is inactive, which means that those extra calories aren’t getting burned off. Anxiety can also make you eat more “mindlessly” as you churn around worrying thoughts in your head, not even focusing on the taste of the food, how much you’ve eaten, or when you are feeling full. When you eat mindlessly, you will likely eat more, yet feel less satisfied.