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How stress and weight are linked

It’s just a matter of eating fewer calories, right? Or is it? Weight loss is a constant struggle for many Australians today, and the advice that our GPs give is generally along the lines of ‘it’s just a matter of more calories out [more exercise] and fewer calories in [eating less].’ But the fact is, it’s just not that simple. Like many people who struggle to maintain a healthy weight, you might be battling against a hidden factor: the link between stress and weight.

You’re juggling a demanding job, taking care of the kids, trying to maintain some semblance of order at home, and more. Is there any wonder you’re tempted to bypass preparing your salad for lunch today, and decide to head to the local takeaway instead?! Eating more than we should and making less-than-healthy food choices is something that a huge number of us suffer with. However, there’s more to it than simply ‘emotional eating’. In fact, there’s a serious amount of research behind the theory that stress and weight gain are directly linked.

The stress hormone ‘cortisol’ has been proven to have many negative effects on the body, including increasing inflammation, decreasing the ability of our immune system to fight off infection and disease, and worryingly, weight gain and trouble losing weight.

Levels of cortisol rise during tension-filled times, as a natural part of the body’s response to stress. The results of higher cortisol levels in the blood are increased insulin levels and lower blood sugar. What does this mean for your eating habits? You’ll naturally crave ‘comfort foods’, including those high in sugar and fat. This is your body hoping to help calm you down, and for a very brief amount of time, it works. However, the ongoing effects of these eating impulses means enhanced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and of course, weight gain. The insidious nature of stress also means that your guilt around eating these foods and your subsequent weight gain means yet more stress – setting off the whole cycle again.

Unfortunately, your cravings are only half the problem. The other significant way in which stress and weight are linked comes down to metabolism. The higher levels of stress hormone in your body can mess with your metabolism, meaning that when you’re stressed, your body is less equipped to manage your energy intake and output than it would normally be. So, even if your eating habits have remained the same (or even if you’re eating less due to stress), you may find that you’re putting on weight. It also means that you’ll feel more tired and less motivated to get active. That’s a recipe for disaster!

There’s no test you can take which will tell you, without a doubt, that stress is the factor that’s hindering your weight gain. However, there are a few simple questions that you can ask yourself to help determine whether or not this is the case. To help you to consider whether stress may be linked to your struggle with weight loss, consider these questions:

  • Is your weight above the recommended healthy range?
  • Have you tried several different diets without success?
  • Do you have trouble keeping weight off even after losing it?
  • Do you have a healthy lifestyle; healthy eating and consistent exercise yet keep putting on more weight or can’t lose it?
  • Does your current schedule or commitments mean you can’t prioritise a healthy lifestyle, eg. no time for meal planning and preparation or consistent exercise?
  • Do you starve yourself or are you too busy to eat, yet you keep putting on weight or can’t lose it? If you do this too often you will only slow your metabolism down even more!
  • Are your blood sugars up and down like a yo-yo? Do you often crave sugar and/or carbs especially in the afternoon?

If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to some of these questions (or all of them!) stress could be a major contributing factor in your struggle to manage your weight.

Telling someone to ‘stress less’ is as about as effective as telling someone to calm down in the middle of a panic attack – it simply doesn’t work, and what’s more, it’s likely to make them feel worse. If you’re someone who’s prone to being stressed, you’ll know this only too well.

But wait – there’s good news! There are a few key things you can do today which will help to lower your stress levels, get you feeling better and more equipped to deal with the tension that life hands you, and can will help you to overcome the negative effects that stress is having on your body.

  1. Put a plan in place to eat better

Eating well when you’re stressed is not only difficult in terms of willpower, as we’ve highlighted above, your body is actually working against you. The best way to tackle the motivational struggles and comfort food cravings is to be prepared. By having some structured strategies in place like stocking the pantry and fridge full of easy-to-prepare healthy foods, doing a few weekly menu plans with associated shopping lists and rotating them, make a set time in the week to do your shopping and a cook-up, then you’re far less likely to reach for the keys and head to the nearest takeaway.

  1. Make relaxation a priority

If stress is a regular part of your day, it’s important for your body’s health and your mental health to take time to relax and recuperate. This might mean attending a meditation or yoga class every week, or simply taking some time out during the day for a quiet walk by yourself. Whatever helps you to relax your mind – start making the time for it regularly (schedule it or it won’t happen!).

  1. Exercise – for more reasons than you think!

Of course, we know that exercise does great things for the body. It can help you to build muscle, tone up and lose weight. But if you’re struggling to manage your stress, and finding that it’s having a negative effect on your weight, exercise is even more important. Studies show that exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress and to help manage levels of cortisol in the body. Furthermore, exercise also helps to increase levels of the ‘happy’ hormone, serotonin.

Struggling with chronic stress means constantly feeling exhausted (that’s what cortisol does to the body!) which of course then leads to a lack of motivation – that much is clear (try to be motivated when your exhausted right?). You might also be one of those people who simply doesn’t enjoy hitting the gym or attending a fitness class. Do you feel intimidated by the other bodies at the gym? Consider do you find yourself too tired to attend, too bored to keep attending, or too self-conscious?

The key to creating and maintaining a great fitness routine which will reduce your stress levels and help tackle the negative effects of stress on the body is having a structured and consistent exercise routine where someone, like a personal training, is holding you accountable. But not just any personal trainer, mind you; you need an experienced personal trainer who understands the science and psychology behind your weight loss struggles and will develop a fitness plan which you can enjoy (imagine that!), and not one that tries to sell you chemical-laden supplements and protein powders and tells you they are the magic answer!

If you’re ready to finally tackle your weight and begin living the happier and healthier life that you’ve been craving, Integrated Health Specialists can help. Not only do we have an expert personal trainer who is also a certified Wellness Coach available to create a personalised fitness plan for you, we’ve also developed holistic weight loss programs which incorporate personalised nutrition, including DNA profiling, psychology, hypnotherapy and more. For a one-of-a-kind holistic approach to your weight loss journey, contact us today.

Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen