Impact of chronic stress on weight and how to stay a healthy size.
Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal glands during the stress response, which you can read more about here. Studies have found a strong link between long-term raised cortisol levels and excess weight around the abdomen. Whilst cortisol is thought to encourage fat storage in this area, scientists suggest not everyone gains weight during stress as some people may be more prone to putting on weight around the middle than others, possibly due to an increased sensitivity to the effects of cortisol.
Cortisol can also increase the desire for ‘comfort foods’ that are high in sugar and fat, leading to weight gain if consumed frequently. Studies have shown that if you are sleep deprived due to stress, this may also lead to an increased preference for high sugar, high-fat foods. Together these factors contribute to an increased risk of weight gain.
5 ways to avoid weight gain when stressed
When stressed we are more likely to choose high sugar, high-fat foods. However, frequent consumption of these foods can lead to weight gain, diabetes and high cholesterol. If you are craving these foods, pause for a moment, take a deep breath and count to ten. This helps to avoid automatic decisions and enables you to assess whether you are really hungry or not.
2. Choose low sugar snacks
A good rule is to choose foods that don’t cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels as this can contribute to weight gain over time. If you’re craving something sweet, choose naturally sweet options that also contain fibre, healthy fats and protein. For example, a handful of dried fruit, nuts and seeds, dark chocolate bark (click HERE for a recipe), coconut-flour scones (savoury or sweet), protein balls, or fruit compote and plain yoghurt.
3. Include protein at every meal
Protein takes more energy for the body to digest and can help you to feel fuller for longer. It can help with weight management and is also a good source of amino acids which are important for the production of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that help to regulate the nervous system and appetite. Good sources include meat, fish, eggs, beans, tofu, lentils, peas and quinoa.
4. Move your body
Make it a priority to exercise each day. Staying physically active helps to maintain a healthy weight and can also help to alleviate stressful feelings. Focus on something you enjoy whether that’s a brisk walk in nature, a bike ride, a jog or dancing in the kitchen.
5. Prioritise relaxation and self-care
Certain activities help to counteract the stress response by stimulating calming and feel-good hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and neurotransmitters such as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). In turn, this lowers cortisol levels and helps to avoid weight gain. Some ideas include movement, sun exposure, time in nature, laughter, hugs, petting an animal and meditation.
Chronic stress may cause weight gain in some people. It can be difficult to make healthy food choices when stressed but you can help yourself by adding more protein, choosing lower sugar snacks, and pausing before eating. Moving your body more and including relaxing activities also helps to prevent weight gain caused by stress.