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You know you’re stressed! You can feel it in every pore. Work, cooking, cleaning, kids, school, in-laws and out-laws, keeping up with friends, keeping on top of disasters big (“Mom, there’s water coming out of the ceiling.”) and small (“Who put the dog in the toilet?). According to the American Psychological Association (APA) most Americans suffer from moderate to high stress, and 44% of us say our stress levels have increased over the last five years. What you may not know is that stress — whether over finances, work, the economy, family responsibilities, relationships, health problems or personal concerns — can wreck your weight.

Stress is a quadruple threat to your waistline. It increases appetite, bolsters fat storage, decreases willpower and interferes with sleep. Whether you want to lose weight or just maintain your current shape, if you don’t address stress your weight is going to climb.

Stress is how your body physically reacts to challenges and threats. It affects every cell of your body and impacts your health, mood and behavior, including your eating habits. It’s a survival of the species instinct. Back in cavewoman days, the chemicals released by your body during stressful situations (cortisol, for example) helped people to outrun predators, fight for limited food sources and hunt. Hunting big game with a wooden spear and some rocks… now that’s stressful! Humans who survived these harsh circumstances, partially due to their heightened stress response, passed their genes on to future generations.

While most of us don’t face prehistoric challenges anymore — I know some of you consider husbands to be prehistoric beasts but that’s a different article — now any perceived threat, whether a pile of unpaid bills or being late for work, activates our stress response system. This type of stress is harmful because our bodies didn’t evolve to deal with the pressure, anxiety and tension that we all experience on a daily basis. We’re designed to handle short-term stress, like being chased by a saber-toothed tiger or your mother-in-law. We’re not equipped to deal with the unrelenting, addictive stress of the modern world.

 

The Stress Appetite Connection

While some people eat less when stressed most of us eat more, and it ain’t carrot sticks we choose. We seek sugar, fat and calorie packed comfort foods. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress survey 38% of respondents said they overeat or eat unhealthy foods because of stress.

There’s a physiological reason stress triggers overeating. When you feel threatened your body releases several hormones, including adrenalin, corticotrophin (CRH) and cortisol. While initially these hormones decrease hunger, increase blood sugar and metabolize fat to provide quick energy for fight-or-flight, the appetite suppression doesn’t last very long. Once the stressful event has passed your blood sugar level comes crashing down, making you hungry and increasing sugar cravings. Eating is an enjoyable distraction, and the quick carbs found in sugar calm you down by raising levels of the soothing brain chemical serotonin. This is why candy and ice cream taste soooooooo good when you’re stressed. So you eat more and store the extra calories as fat.

You may also burn fewer calories when you’re stressed. One study found that on average women who experienced more stress during their day burned over 100 fewer calories than women who said their day was stress-free. Plus, the stressed-out women had higher levels of the hormone insulin which signals your body to store extra calories as fat.

Stress and Belly Fat

Unlike our cave dwelling ancestors, you don’t need the extra calories to survive. But your body has no idea there’s plenty of food in the pantry as well as the stored calories around your waistline. It just knows you’ve experienced stress, and it wants to prepare you for future dangers by storing as much energy (i.e. calories) as possible.

All those extra stress calories go to the worst place: YOUR WAISTLINE. Belly fat is the ATM of energy storage. It can be quickly withdrawn whenever your body needs it. That’s why once the threat has passed cortisol reduces your ability to burn fat and increases fat storage especially in the belly.

Not only is abdominal fat hard to lose and unattractive, it’s dangerous. When coupled with  elevated cortisol, which is toxic to your brain and body, belly fat increases your risk of heart disease, cancer hypertension, diabetes, mortality and memory loss.

Now you know exactly how stress leads to weight gain. Fortunately there are a number of steps you can take to reduce your stress… and weight. Yep, I’m talking weight loss through stress reduction. In my next blog posts I’ll reveal healthy ways to decrease stress and lose weight. Here’s a hint, they all come from my forthcoming book: Smash Your Scale: Lose Weight and Never, Ever, Diet Again.

Relax, just do it, when you want to lose it. Relax, just do it, I will show you how.