Is stress making you fat?

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With stress levels at an all time high and with increasing demands both at home and work, its no wonder as a nation we are all getting fatter. If like many people you find yourself snacking on chocolate, biscuits and comfort food you are not alone. Turning to food and drink as a strategy for coping is one of the most popular ways to unwind. Only this week, another report is out suggesting that 30% of the middle classes are regularly opening a bottle of wine once their offspring are safely tucked up in bed at the end of the day. I suggest doubling this figure would afford a more reliable estimate!

Turning to food and drink as a strategy to cope may work in the short term, but long term it is a disaster waiting to happen. Such strategies become habitual when we are under constant pressure. This quick fix and the resultant sugar rush becomes the norm and whilst saturated fat satiates the palate, our bodies cry out for more. What happens in terms of stress and weight gain, is that the body releases a hormone called cortisol. This so called, “stress hormone” is triggered by the body mobilising itself for action in the face of threat. This is called the “fight and fight” response. It encourages the body to store fat and deposits fatty reserves around our middle in case of famine.

Because cortisol continues to be released hours after the initial rush it can have a major impact on the body:

  • It impairs cognitive functioning.
  • Raising blood pressure
  • lowering our immune system
  • It slows down thyroid function
  • Blood sugar may become imbalanced leading to conditions such as hyperglycaemia
  • It diminishes bone density
  • Increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke
  • It raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol

The answer is to find ways to reduce residual stress and therefore inhibit the production of cortisol. Here are ten simple tips to begin to reduce stress:

  1. Increase exercise – regular moderate exercise can significantly lower stress levels by burning off hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin. Furthermore, exercise affords the added benefit of increasing our metabolism and producing an “after-burn” effectively burning calories hours after exercise. An evening jog will have you burning calories even while you sleep.
  2. Get a good nights sleep, not only will this leave you better able to cope with the demands of the day, but studies have shown that those who get insufficient sleep tend to put on weight quicker than those who have a full nights sleep, especially sleep before midnight.
  3. Learn to say “no”. Many people feel guilty saying no. because they think the other person will be upset or offended.Remember, when you say no, you are saying no to the request not the person.
  4. Beware of danger times by using the acronym – H.A.L.T, which sands for hungry, angry, lonely or tired (the H could also stand for hormones!).
  5. Relinquish control. Trying to control everything is a recipe for disaster, likewise, tackling every challenge head-on, just leads to a series of battles. Try letting things pass over you. Most things won’t matter in a week, a month, a year.
  6. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine in tea, coffee, chocolate and drinks such as coke. Fizzy drinks often contain large amounts of sugar, particularly those labelled as “energy drinks”. These all produce the quick fix sugar spike.
  7. Take regular breaks (or pit stops) during your day. Try to get some vitamin D in the form of  sunlight, preferably in a green environment as nature is a great natural de-stressor.
  8. Take up yoga, palates or join a relaxation class.
  9. Snack on nuts, lean ham and chicken, these are all good protein foods that will leave you feeling satisfied. Peanut butter on crisp-bread is a very good choice. Complex carbohydrate for breakfast, in the form of porridge or high protein eggs will provide slow release energy and prepare you to deal with the demands of the day.
  10. Write your “to do list” at the start of the day or preferably the night before. Reduce it by 50% will ensure you get the things you have outlined done. If not, you will not achieve your goals and you will feel frustrated.

If you would like more help on managing the stress in your life, or alternatively see our counsellor who specialises in eating disorders, please contact us at –

Until next time. Steve Clifford. Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist

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