Submitted By: Amy Sercel MS RD CD
Edited By: Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD
Losing weight is stressful! Whether you’re counting calories, craving a dessert that you swore you’d given up, or trying to fit in a run before dinner, losing weight can feel like another item on an ever-growing to-do list. The feeling can be even worse when you aren’t seeing any results despite all of your hard work. Unfortunately, the stress you feel about weight loss could actually be one of the reasons that losing weight is so tough.
Your body makes a lot of hormones that regulate appetite and weight. These hormones are impacted by stress levels. One of the most influential of these is cortisol, a hormone that’s released when you are stressed. Today, the body responds to emotional stress in a similar way to when our ancestors literally had to fight off or run away from predators to survive. This is called the fight-or-flight reflex. This reflex would cause humans’ bodies to release cortisol, which in turn would raise blood sugar levels to provide the muscles with enough energy to run away from whatever caused the stress. This energy was used up by literally running away from predators. Today, your body still has the same reaction to stress, but the situation has changed. Cortisol is still released and blood sugar levels rise up, but the need for energy isn’t there. Instead, the additional calories released are stored as fat. 1
At the same time, the human body is able to store calories as fat very efficiently because our ancestors had to hunt and gather food. After successful hunts, food was plentiful and early humans were able to eat their fill, but there were also times when food was scarce. When this happened, our ancestors’ metabolisms would slow down and their bodies would depend on stored fat for energy. Without this metabolic slow-down, it’s likely that our ancestors would have starved when food was harder to come by.
Today, we are fortunate not to have times of famine. Unfortunately, the combination of stress, the amount of food available, and sedentary lifestyles provide an ideal situation for storing extra calories as fat. When you are stressed your body releases cortisol, which not only slows your metabolism and promotes the storage of fat, but also increases your hunger for foods high in fat and carbohydrates. For the early human, this process would provide enough energy to fuel the fight-or-flight reflex. Today, when high-calorie foods are so plentiful, it only makes losing weight more difficult.1
On top of all that, your body produces other chemicals in response to both stress and dieting that will drive you to crave comfort foods. For example, when you go more than three hours without eating, your body produces the hormone ghrelin, and as a result you will crave refined carbohydrates.2 Eating these foods triggers your brain to release dopamine, which makes you feel happy but also reinforces the craving. Ultimately, this leads to a cycle where stress leads to cravings for both refined carbohydrates and the happiness you feel when you eat them.2
So, with all of these hormones working against your goals, is weight loss even possible? Yes! Studies have shown that eating small meals containing a variety of complex carbohydrates and protein can prevent ghrelin levels from rising and causing carbohydrate cravings. It is also important not to skip breakfast and to eat regularly.1,3 Tune into your hunger using mindful eating strategies: eat food you like when you’re hungry and stop when you are satisfied. Mindful eating is known to help with weight loss – people who practice it are less likely to crave food in response to stress or to regain weight after ending a weight loss program.2
In addition, reducing the overall stress in your life will help both your mental and physical health! Try some of these tips:4
- Get enough sleep: Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Feeling tired can make it harder to think clearly, which definitely promotes stress! A regular sleep schedule, when you go to sleep and wake up at about the same time each day, will help you sleep better, too.
- Be physically active: this can be a great way to take your mind off a stressful experience. Physical activity also releases endorphins in your brain, making you feel happier.
- Spend time with other people: laughing, hearing about someone else’s day, or problem solving with a friend can be the perfect way to relax.
- Make a schedule: block out time to yourself, time with friends, and time to engage in physical activity! Having a routine can also eliminate the stress of finding time to fit in everything you want to do each day.
The food you eat shouldn’t be another stress in your life! Choose whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables, and don’t stress yourself out by restricting a food you really want. Instead, take a mindful eating approach by eating when you are hungry, paying attention as you eat, and stopping when you are satisfied. This way, eating will remain the enjoyable experience that it was meant to be!
- Villacorta M. Eating Free: The Carb-Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep the Weight Off for Good. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc; 2012.
- Mason AE, Epel ES, Aschbacher K, et al. Reduced reward-driven eating accounts for the impact of a mindfulness-based diet and exercise intervention on weight loss: Data from the SHINE randomized controlled trial. Appetite. 2016;100:86-93. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.02.009.
- Jakubowicz D, Froy O, Wainstein J, Boaz M. Meal timing and composition influence ghrelin levels, appetite scores and weight loss maintenance in overweight and obese adults. Steroids. 2012;77(4):323-331. doi:10.1016/j.steroids.2011.12.006.
- Stress Management: How to Reduce, Prevent, and Cope with Stress. http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/stress-management.htm. Accessed June 29, 2016.