SOME time ago I was absent-mindedly scanning the Small Paper (they’re almost all small papers these days, but you know the one I mean) when a headline jumped out at me. “Is STRESS making you FAT?” Oh no, I groaned, another simplistic quick-fix diet article. But in the interests of research, I decided I should read on.
The next question has been to ask where has all this adiposity come from? So many theories, so little time. It used to be too much fat, and of the “wrong” sort. Throw away the dripping and the butter, they’ll kill you for sure, they said. So we did, and started eating chemically produced seed oils instead. Then they went out of favour too because of the dreaded trans fats, whose scrambled molecules were too prone to deliver free radicals that damage our cells and make us old before our time.
Then it dawned on the experts that despite giving up fats of any kind we continued to balloon, so now sugar is the enemy, and yes, it does make too much of an appearance in many processed food products. Yet many can remember having sugary cereal for breakfast, an iced donut for playlunch, then lollies on the way home from school. And generally we were about half the size we are now.
So could that alarming headline be valid? Let’s consider several important points.
The stressed state (“fight or flight”) has a variety of effects in the body which are designed to save us in a serious crisis. However the body cannot tell the difference between a truly life-threatening situation or the much more common perceived one, such as being expected to check work emails while off duty, being “pinged” constantly by communication devices to alert us there is yet another banal message from an interweb “friend”, or being unable to resolve issues at work or at home. Either kind of stress causes a rise in cortisol levels in the body which in turn puts more glucose into the bloodstream and cells which, if not used up, will be stored as fat. The longer that stress is not managed, the longer altered glucose levels continue and the more likely fat will be stored.
Next, stress often disrupts our sleep. Failing to get our healthy seven or eight hours sleep each night unbalances important hormones that tell us when we need to eat, and then when we have had enough. We may have a variety of reasons for short or interrupted sleep, but regardless, we need to keep to the habits of proper “sleep hygiene”. This means switching off devices and the TV an hour before bedtime and instead getting into a slowing-down routine. This might include listening to quiet music, reading an interesting but not stimulating book or magazine, taking a gentle walk, doing some yoga or a short meditation. These activities tell our body it’s safe to switch off the flight and flight mechanisms. We will sleep better and allow the brain to produce the correct balance between “eat” and “stop” signals. Importantly, the more often we allow ourselves into this more relaxed state, the more we become able to think clearly, and we will cope better when stresses do intrude.
Finally, when we are stressed we often make unhealthy eating choices, and worst of all fail to eat with proper attention to what we are doing. We tend to reach for our preferred comfort foods, whether fatty chips or sugary snacks, and our interest in preparing nourishing meals may be compromised.
Worse, even if we do serve ourselves something healthy, when we eat while stressed we don’t concentrate on the food we are ingesting and so the brain is not sent clear enough signals indicating food intake. Our stomach may be full but our brain hasn’t had a chance to register the fact; we don’t feel satisfied and continue to reach for more snacks, piling on the kilos in the process. Try putting your fork or spoon down between mouthfuls; it may be revealing just how quickly you are taking in your food, and you may even find you can stop at less.
Sometimes we don’t even realise how stressed we are until a health crisis occurs; surely better to be on the lookout for signs that we are not managing our lives as well as we could. An expanding waistline could simply be too much of the good life, but on the other hand it could be our body’s plea for us to slow down and take stock.
April 1, 2017
An amazing,insightful,and sensible article about the relationship between stress and the way, and what we eat. Has given me plenty of food for thought, pardon the pun. Thank you!
Michelle Graham, Pioneer Bay