Myth: Stress keeps you trim
Fact: Wiry worry-worts really give the wrong impression about the role of stress and weight loss. It’s more likely that stress makes you fat.
And even if it doesn’t, the anxious “type A” personality or “stress junkie” is at greater risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke. So on any front, worry is worrying! So what’s the connection between stress and fatness? It seems there are both physiological and behavioural factors at play.
For starters, psychological stress elevates stress hormones, the main one being cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels over time actually create more body fat, and in the most risky places (around your middle). But hang on, aren’t stress hormones meant to help you ‘fight or flee’ and wouldn’t you need the body’s fuel sources such as fatty acids and glucose for this? While it’s true that stress hormones help liberate stored food energy at the time of the stress, if you don’t actually use this energy for fighting or fleeing the body goes into storage overdrive. And it goes where the body can reach it in a hurry for the next ‘threat’ – in the abdominal fat stores around the waist. Apart from making you fat, these stress hormones also create other metabolic disturbances such as high blood pressure, adverse blood lipids, and endothelial dysfunction (stiff blood vessels), all of which contribute to cardiovascular disease risk. So what’s the antidote? If your body is hormonally set for ‘fight or flee’, then ‘fight’ apathy and ‘flee’ the scene and get some exercise – the best way to prevent stress-related damage.
Then of course there’s that behavioural issue of comfort eating. How many times have you reached for the chocolates, ice cream or cookie jar when a big hug, a few bouts with a punching bag or a change of scene would have done the trick? Stress is unpleasant and many of us have a habit of soothing unpleasantness with a quick fix of something yummy. And at times like these, broccoli just won’t do! Since childhood we’ve been soothed from pain of all sorts with something sweet, rich or just plain fattening. Of course there’s nothing wrong with a little eating to feel better, but when food is the number one fix in our emotional toolkit, weight can get out of control.
Like many problems, the first step is acknowledging you’re a comfort eater – a food and feelings diary can help spot triggers. Then, when you know what sets you off, it is then a matter of finding alternative ways to soothe your troubles. Taking more time-out for things you enjoy, talking to a trusted friend, going out for a walk, getting enough rest and generally not overwhelming yourself with too many tasks, can help.
So the message is, stress less if you can. Flee with glee and a good pair of running shoes, and reach for cuddles, not calories, when the going gets tough. Your heart will thank you.