By Robin Quay, MS, RD, Sodexo Dietitian
When humans are stressed, their bodies release hormones for a fight or flight reaction. In modern society, stress is more emotional than physical. We generally neither fight nor flee in stressful situations, but a series of fight or flight hormones are released anyway. And, since we’re not fighting or fleeing, we’re not really burning any calories.
However, humans are programmed so that after stress has passed, the hormone cortisol is released. Cortisol’s function is to replenish the body of all the calories and energy used when fighting or fleeing the stressful situation. It increases appetite and gives the body a clue to eat sugary or starchy foods. This was helpful when humans needed to physically fight or run away from stressors like wild animals, but it isn’t the greatest thing in today’s world. Also, studies show that fat is stored in the abdominal area in response to stress, and this fat is more likely to be associated with heart disease and diabetes.
So how can we put a damper on the appetite inducing high levels of cortisone brought on by stress?
Exercise-It uses calories, plus it releases chemicals into the body that help reduce stress. It helps keep blood sugar levels under control, as well.
Eat a balanced diet and regular meals-This keeps blood sugar levels steady and helps reduce cortisol.
Get enough sleep-lack of sleep causes cortisol levels to rise, as well as levels of ghrelin, another hormone associated with weight gain.
Relax-spend time participating in activities that make you feel relaxed and calm.
Make high calorie, non-nutritious “comfort foods” inaccessible. If you feel you have to eat in response to stress related hunger, try high fiber and whole grain foods like fruits, oatmeal, or whole grain cereals. These foods help keep blood sugar under control.
Limit caffeine-caffeine in soft drinks, coffee, and tea cause cortisol levels to rise.
Hormones released by stress can contribute to weight gain. However, eating as an activity to relieve stress can also contribute. If you find yourself stressed out all the time, experts recommend doing what you can to reduce and manage the stress, and eating a well balanced healthy diet. This will help prevent unwanted weight gain.