How stress can impact your food choices

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I have never believed that weight-loss or weight management is as simple as calories in versus calories out. Our bodies are not inert and what contributes to how we nourish ourselves includes what can be complex cultural, metabolic, psychological and environmental factors.

What, and how much you eat, as well as moving your body regularly aren’t the only things that impact your shape and size. Emotional and physical stress can also tip the balance of the nervous system and subsequently the scales.

But it’s not always about weight gain, stress can also result in people losing weight – or changing their eating habits.
 
Driving the stress response
When you are stressed your body is constantly producing adrenalin, and as a result your energy tends to be inconsistent.

You fire up and then you crash, and the choices you make when you crash can set you up to fire up again and quite often they are nutritionally of a poor quality. They will typically involve caffeine, sugars or starches, or all three.

Let’s face it, you don’t polish off a packet of chocolate biscuits thinking you are going to feel amazing afterwards. And you don’t do that from a lack of knowledge – you do it for biochemical or emotional reasons, or both.

Adrenalin (our short-term stress hormone) communicates to every cell in the body that your life is in danger – even if the reason you are feeling stressed is because you are making a phone call you would rather not make, or because your email inbox is exploding and you have a perception of pressure to stay on top of it all.

Adrenalin triggers a surge in your blood glucose (sugar) levels, which is ultimately followed by a crash, and with that comes the biological desire to restore glucose levels. This is when your sugar cravings are likely to arise.

Consuming too much caffeine is a sure fire way to feel stressed or rushed as it also results in the release of adrenalin. Many people feel tired, yet often describe themselves as being wired – yet they continue to consume coffee (which stimulates adrenalin production).

This is of particular importance if you feel jittery when you consume it. Swap coffee for green tea, or if that’s just unbearable to you, ask for a single shot coffee (often what we think of as a regular size coffee can contain two or more shots) and notice if you feel calmer and more energised after a week of doing this.


Stress and weight gain
When you are running on adrenalin your body needs a fast burning fuel, so instead of burning body fat (which is a slow and steady fuel), it chooses more glucose.

Continual overproduction of cortisol (our long-term stress hormone) can lead to visceral fat gain, the type located inside our abdomen that is strongly linked to inflammation and an increased risk of many diseases. Stress has a tendency to make food feel more rewarding or comforting, and subsequently we can rely on food to ease our stress.

Be mindful of when you’re eating to alleviate stress or when you’re eating because you’re hungry. Typically, the types of food you want will be the clue here. Not many people who are stressed crave a big bowl of kale.

Stress and weight loss
Many people describe that the mere thought of eating makes them feel nauseous in the midst of chronic stress and anxiety. There is a biochemical reason behind this.

When our bodies produce stress hormones part of this ‘fight or flight’ response suppresses what it considers non-essential processes such as our digestion, therefore, digestive processes are compromised.

Nutrient-dense liquids are often beneficial for people in times like these as they’re much easier to digest; try soups, smoothies and slow-cooked foods, such as casseroles.

It’s not all about food
One effective strategy for modulating or even eliminating stress is to identify where the stress in your life is coming from, or if you are driving this physical response through your thoughts and perceptions of pressure and urgency. This is not often as obvious as it may seem.

While there are obvious triggers such as work deadlines, financial pressure, relationship pressures and so on, there will also be situations in your life you may never have considered.

For example, your daily commute, or people in your life that may cause you to feel stressed due to their very nature or your response to them.

It may help to do an experiment where you monitor your state of mind regularly; when you start to feel stressed write down the cause, your thoughts and subsequently your mood. Once you can identify your source/s of stress you can develop your own plan for addressing these factors.

While you may be able to minimise some of your identified stressors, it may not be possible to completely eliminate them.

When you feel stressed, I can’t encourage you enough to bring focus to the way you are breathing – this has a powerful impact on the nervous system.

Nothing is more effective in decreasing your production of stress hormones than diaphragmatic breathing – long, slow breaths that move your diaphragm.

This communicates to every cell in your body that you are safe, and will allow you to feel calmer and your body burns body fat more effectively with the calm arm of the nervous system in charge.


About Dr Libby

When it comes to women’s health and wellbeing, Dr Libby (Weaver) and her brand of down-to-earth advice is highly regarded and widely sought after.  

As one of Australasia’s leading nutritional biochemists and a best-selling (nine times) author, Dr Libby may come armed with an impressive arsenal of talents, but her goals are simple: to help people regain their energy and vitality, and take charge of their health and happiness.

Hotly sought after as a speaker, she is set to visit Hamilton this month as part of a New Zealand and Australian tour. The topic, Sort Your Sleep, is a guide to understanding mood, stress and fatigue. The Hamilton event is on April 12 at Waikato Diocesan School for Girls (tickets are available through drlibby.com).

The respected international speaker and her expertise in nutritional biochemistry has led her to share the stage with the likes of Dr Oz, Tony Robbins and Sir Richard Branson. Her clients include Hugh Jackman and tens of thousands of people around the globe passionate about achieving and maintaining their ultimate health and wellbeing.

With a background in biochemistry and a natural ability to break down even the most complex of concepts into layman’s terms, Dr Libby’s health messages are globally relevant, across the world.

Her PhD examined the biochemical and nutritional factors in children with autism, and her findings have since changed the way the condition is treated in Australia and New Zealand.

Having recently founded and launched her own plant-based supplement range, Bio Blends, Dr Libby has a bold mission statement – but looks like she is well on task to achieving it.

“My mission is to educate and inspire, enhancing people’s health and happiness, igniting a ripple effect that transforms the world.”

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