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The link between stress and weight gain

None of us like to gaze in the mirror and see a couple of extra inches here, a few extra pounds there. And yet, it’s a common reality for so many of us. In fact, the number of overweight and even obese Americans has been on the rise for years. Over the past few decades, we’ve seen ourselves getting bigger and bigger, and there’s one huge factor lurking behind those higher numbers on the scale: stress.

Modern life is stressful, and it seems to become more and more so with each passing year. Unfortunately, stress and weight gain are intimately linked, and there are several reasons for this. Let’s find out what they are, and what we can do about them.

Stress and malnutrition

Think about those days when you find yourself scarfing down a hamburger from a fast-food chain because you don’t have time to cook a nutritious meal. What about those times you eat something from the vending machine at your desk because you don’t have time for a lunch break? Maybe you eat on the run — having a muffin in your car as you rush to work.

If this sounds familiar, you’re eating foods that harm your body and mind, rather than nourish them — simply because you’re short on time. In other words, your life is moving at too fast a pace and you can’t seem to catch up. If life has been feeling this way for a while, you’re most likely experiencing chronic stress. And this form of stress has you making the wrong food choices, and perhaps even overeating while you’re at it. How will you ever maintain a healthy weight at this rate?

If this is the case, lifestyle changes need to be made if you want to get your health back on track. Consider cooking a bunch of healthy meals on Sunday that you can freeze and eat throughout the week. Create a meal plan that’s both delicious and nutritious. Planning in this way can help make the last-minute stops at fast-food joints a thing of the past.

Stress hormones

Chronic stress does a number on your hormones. Three primary hormones that contribute to stress-related weight gain are adrenaline, cortisol, and CRH. When these stress hormones are activated, we go into fight or flight mode, which causes the body to hold onto fat and glucose. This storing of fat often results in the accumulation of belly fat — no good for our weight loss efforts.

Cortisol in particular is associated with increased belly fat, which is particularly hazardous to your health. This visceral fat in the abdominal region is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Chronic stress equals poor sleep patterns

In order to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight, we need to get a good night’s sleep. The stress cycle sabotages truly nourishing sleep because of those pesky stress hormones that keep you up at night. An overactive mind that worries doesn’t help either.

What’s more, when you’re sleep-deprived, the hormones that help you maintain a healthy weight — leptin and ghrelin — lose their ability to function properly. These are the hormones responsible for appetite control, and when they’re not doing their job, you’ll naturally want to eat more and eat poorly. To top it all off, it’s way more difficult to cultivate the willpower to eat nourishing foods when you’re sleep-deprived.

What to do if you’re chronically stressed and don’t want to gain weight

Fortunately, there are activities you can integrate into your life that will help minimize stress-related weight gain. Choose a couple from this list to begin, and continue to add more as you develop healthy new habits.

Regular exercise is key

If you don’t have a regular fitness regimen yet, now is the time. The type of exercise you do doesn’t really matter, as long as you get moving. Choose something you enjoy that you can stick with. Pay attention to how certain forms of exercise feel and let your body choose what’s best. Some days will call for a relaxing yoga routine. Other days will beckon 15-20 minutes of burst training, while others will simply want a leisurely walk in the park or a bike ride.

Make sure you do at least 2 days a week of aerobic exercise, as this form of fitness lowers stress hormones like cortisol and supports a healthy metabolism.

Mindfulness fosters better eating habits

Taking up a mindful eating practice will support better eating habits. You’ll learn to eat healthier foods at times when your body and mind actually need them.

Mindfulness eating involves paying more attention to what you eat and how it makes you feel. Instead of eating in front of the TV or the computer, sit down at the table. Eat slowly, so that your body has time to send the signal to your brain when it’s had enough to eat.

Also, pay attention to your body’s hunger cues. Are you reaching for a snack because you’re truly hungry, or because you’re feeling stressed? If you’re used to eating your emotions, it can be a tough habit to break, but becoming aware of your patterns is an important first step. Try drinking a big glass of water instead, or distract yourself with another activity, like going for a brisk walk.

Learning to eat mindfully will also teach you how to live mindfully, which will naturally lead to less stress and a slower pace of living.

Find activities that don’t revolve around food and drink

Do you tend to get together with your friends to eat and drink? Why not start looking for other social activities that don’t involve food? Consider joining a book club at your local library or taking a painting class. Invite some friends to try a yoga class and go out for smoothies afterward. Instead of going out for pizza with your friends, suggest a game of mini-golf — you’ll get more activity into your day and get away from all the fattening foods.

Take up journaling

Buy yourself a pretty journal and take some time each morning or evening to jot down your thoughts. Writing is a wonderful way to relieve stress and get clear about what you might want to change in your life. It helps you dig deep — discovering your hidden hopes, dreams, and desires. Journaling can be a powerful means of self-discovery. Allow yourself to write freely and see what manifests on paper.

Reducing chronic stress isn’t easy, and you might want to turn to a professional. At SmartFit Weight Loss, our customized weight-loss programs are designed to address all areas of your life that may be influencing your weight — including stress. We’ll work with you to help you develop healthier habits and support you every step of the way. Get started with a free consultation to learn more!

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