By Madeleine Ortiz
Stress is the body’s reaction to a challenge or demand, and in the short term, stress is actually beneficial. It keeps us alert in dangerous situations, helps us stay focused when we have to finish something by a deadline and, according to Dr. Michael Lyon, is even the reason most of us feel motivated to get out of bed in the morning.
But with busy schedules, high-pressure jobs and growing lists of family obligations, stress is constantly present these days. Normal, temporary stress can turn into chronic and harmful stress- and many people become so used to it that they don’t even realize it’s a problem. However, Dr. Yves Robitaille, director of a metabolic medical center in Montreal, Canada, says that stress is a real problem – and a pretty serious one. Our lack of awareness and not-so-great stress management skills are contributing to weight gain in more ways than one.
Problem #1 More stress = less time for healthy food
When it comes to stress, Dr. Robitaille describes our current environment as “hostile.” There isn’t enough time in the day for everything we think we need to accomplish so we work through our lunch break or push dinner time until way after the first signs of hunger start appearing. Unfortunately, Dr. Robitaille tells us, when we skip meals, our body doesn’t know it’s because we are too busy to eat. Our body thinks we are skipping meals because there isn’t enough food, so when we finally do eat our body tries to hold onto the calories and energy. This can lead to weight gain, even if we are actually eating less food.
In addition, when we are short on time, we often opt for meals that are quick, easy and highly processed. We don’t have time to make something ourselves, so we grab a packaged snack from a vending machine or stop in the fast food drive-through on our way home. Then we eat our food while doing another task, like working or driving. This lack of awareness while eating coupled with the low nutrient density of most ultra-processed foods, leaves us feeling unsatisfied and likely to crave more ultra-processed foods later in the day.
WHAT TO DO
Instead of letting stress wreak havoc on your diet, make healthy eating a priority in your schedule. It doesn’t have to be super time-consuming to eat healthy, says dietitian Melinda Maryniuk, you just have to make sure that you plan it. Set aside some time on the weekend to prep healthy snacks and meals you can rely on when things get hectic during the week. Even simple tasks like chopping veggies, cooking chicken or hard boiling eggs can save time and help you avoid not so healthy choices in the long run.
Stock your pantry and freezer with healthy foods that you know you can turn into a meal on a weeknight in 20 minutes or less. And if you have to reach for something processed? Maryniuk recommends keeping a stash of minimally processed foods (like cheese sticks, canned or vacuum packed tuna and peanut butter) to keep in your desk, car or anywhere else hunger usually can strike! Most importantly, don’t do all your prep work for nothing. Block out time on your calendar where all you have to do is eat. Even if it’s just twenty minutes- turn off your phone, close your laptop and focus just on eating. You’ll feel more satisfied, less stressed and better able to take on the rest of your day!
Problem #2: Stress makes us crave comfort.
Stress that lasts an extended period of time can really take a toll on our nervous system. Dr. Robitaille says that when we are stressed, our brains are literally under pressure – and one of the easiest ways to bring relief is to eat. When we eat high-fat and/or high-sugar foods, our brain actually releases dopamine, and that spike in dopamine can provide temporary happiness, alertness and motivation. But once the dopamine wears off, our brain wants those feelings back so it sends craving signals in the hope that we’ll eat more and spike dopamine levels again. This creates a dangerous cycle that can lead to weight gain.
WHAT TO DO
The good news, according to Dr. Robitaille, is that food isn’t the only way to relieve the stress in our brains. Exercise has the same effects, not to mention a host of other positive health benefits. It might seem counterintuitive to schedule time for exercise when your schedule is already jam-packed, but intentionally moving your body for as little as ten minutes a day can actually lead to a better mood and more productivity. Put exercise in your calendar and treat it like you would any other important appointment. Once you get into the habit of making exercise a priority, you’ll be surprised at how great you become at fitting it into your busy daily routine – and how much better you feel because of it.
Problem #3: Stress can affect our sleep.
When we live with chronic stress, our brain, like our bodies, is working overtime- so much so that it can be really hard to “shut it off” at night. We stay up late, watching TV or scrolling through our phones in an attempt to decompress. According to Dr. Robitaille, less sleep disrupts the mechanisms of weight control in our bodies. In addition, when we are awake longer, we have more time to eat. Instead of recharging our brains and bodies with sleep, we do so with food. The disruption in our body’s ability to regulate weight coupled with the extra calories is the perfect recipe for weight gain- and that’s another reason why getting enough sleep is so important, says Dr. Robitaille.
It might feel impossible at first, but you can develop better sleep habits. Endocrinologist Dr. Mariana Mercado Garcia recommends making your sleep space strictly for sleep- pick out a comfy pillow, play relaxing sounds and turn off all screens. And it’s not just about where you go to sleep, when matters too! Try getting to bed as close to the same time every night as possible, even if you don’t feel tired. Doing things like setting a bedtime alarm and moving your dinner up earlier can help you stay consistent. Once your body gets used to its bedtime, you will notice yourself having an easier time falling and staying asleep each night. If sleep is still alluding you, Dr. Mercado Garcia suggests talking to your doctor. Some sleep conditions need medical intervention– there are tools that can help, you just have to ask.
Finally, when it comes to stress, it’s important to remember that as obesity specialist Dr. Verónica Vázquez Velázquez puts it, our stress isn’t going anywhere. Stress is a part of life. With help from a professional and the right tools, however, we can learn to manage it and live a happier, healthier life.
To learn more about healthy ways to reduce stress, click here.
To find a physician near you who specializes in weight management, click here.
To sign up for our free online class that covers the basics of how to reach a healthier weight, click here.