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Choosing Your Battles Wisely, Diet Positivity: The Power of the Mind, How to Manage Stress with Food

Has stress ever made you want to eat? If so, then stress is your body's way of trying to tell you that something has gone wrong. Before stress became the everyday annoyance that it is today, stress was actually meant to protect us against danger in our environment, like when we faced wild animals or natural disasters. Now stress can come from anywhere, from work stress to relationship stress to money stress. It's no wonder that stress can make us feel hungry, especially for unhealthy food. Let's look at how stress affects our health and happiness in many ways-and what we can do about it.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that makes you want to eat sugary foods like candy and chocolate. This stress eating is your body's way of protecting you against stress, because cortisol triggers the release of insulin in your pancreas for energy production. While it can be nice to eat something sugary when we're feeling down, it's not good for us long-term because cortisol also causes our body to store fat. To fight stress, stress eating and cortisol production, change your stress hormones in the body.

One way to do this is by setting boundaries in your life. For example, maybe you want to start saying no more often because it will be better for you long-term even if it does make stress worse temporarily. Saying yes all the time can cause stress because you feel like you need to please everyone all the time, so stress starts building up and stress eating begins.

Stress isn't just an inevitable byproduct of life but also a major reason why people fail at their weight loss goals. In fact, those who are stressed out about work or those going through stressful life events tend to gain more weight, according to a study published in the journal Obesity.

"Stress has a powerful impact on weight loss and other health-related behaviors," says Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition. "It not only influences overall food intake but also disinhibits eating." In other words, stress can lead to disinhibited or unfocused eating, which is when you mindlessly pick up whatever is handy and eat it as opposed to selecting healthy foods.

Stress can also impact your weight loss efforts in other ways: It may lead you to exercise less or more than usual, eat too little or too much, and adopt unhealthy behaviors — like smoking cigarettes — that you wouldn't do if coping mechanisms weren't needed.

No matter how stressed out you feel, though, there are certain strategies you can apply to your meal plan and overall lifestyle to help reduce the stress while also helping you meet your weight loss goals. Here, five expert-approved ways to manage stress and stay on track with weight loss.

1. Say yes to relaxation
"Taking time for self-care is the number one [strategy] that helps me manage stress," says Smith, who recommends getting plenty of sleep, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Yoga is another option since it has been shown to increase serotonin levels in the brain — associated with mood stabilization — and reduce cortisol, a stress hormone.
You can also try mindfulness meditation or deep breathing. "Being mindful of the present moment and taking deep breaths increases serotonin levels," says Christine M. Palumbo, RDN, CDE, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

2. Make meal prepping part of your routine
"Meal prepping is a huge stress reliever for me because it takes the guesswork and decision-making out of mealtime," says Palumbo. "I know I have healthy food on hand and nothing will derail my weight loss if mealtime stresses me out." Smith agrees: "Make meal planning and preparation part of your daily routine so mealtime stress is kept to a minimum," she says.

3. Turn meal prep into a family affair
And meal prepping doesn't have to be just for you: In fact, it's helpful if the whole family participates since you can all reap the benefits of meal planning and preparation. "Have your kids help choose recipes from your meal plan for the week, prepare the meal together and sit down to eat it together," suggests Smith.

4. Get moving!
Exercise can not only lower stress levels but also increase serotonin production in your brain. Palumbo recommends 10-minute bouts of exercise every hour during the day if you're stressed out so you don't overtax yourself. If your mind starts to wander, focus on the physical activity and let go of what's stressing you out in that moment.

5. Practice mindfulness
Repeat a mantra when stress hits — "I am home" or "I will breathe again" — and notice how saying it out loud helps calm you down, says Smith. When stress strikes, try to notice your body's physical responses to it — like holding your breath or feeling stomach pain — and then bring yourself back into that mantra.

As Smith explains, "With mindfulness training, you can learn to notice when stressors occur and be able to quickly deal with them before they take their toll on your health."

"Stress is a normal part of life," says Palumbo. And while it's important to manage your stress levels so you're less likely to turn to unhealthy coping behaviors — like eating too much or smoking — keep in mind that stress isn't something you can completely avoid. To be successful at weight loss and maintain your healthy habits, it's important to practice self-care and know when you're feeling stressed so you can take action before the feelings get out of control.

"Weight loss is stressful," notes Smith. "But when you have the right tools to manage your stress, you can live a healthier, more rewarding life that allows you to be happier and at a healthy weight."