Dr. Kim Foster

5 Reasons Stress May Be Causing Your Weight Gain

Angela was desperate to lose weight. Over the past six months she’d noticed her weight going up but couldn’t figure out why. As far as Angela could tell, she was eating the same things she always had. Her activity level hadn’t changed. So she came to see me, her family doctor, asking to get her hormones checked, thinking maybe that was the problem.

I checked her hormones and a few other things besides. Everything came back normal. We began to peel back the layers and talk about what else had been going on over the past six months.

It turned out Angela had been going through a pretty rough time. She’d been given some added responsibilities at work, and she had also been going through a contentious divorce.

“Sure, occasionally I comfort myself, but there’s no way that accounts for all this weight gain”, she said.

“I think you’re probably right,” I said. “But at the same time, I suspect it is the stress that’s contributing to your weight gain. Here’s what I think is happening.” I went on to explain what I meant.

The truth is, stress is clearly linked to weight gain, but there are several different reasons why. If you’re struggling to reach your happy/healthy weight, here’s why stress may be sabotaging your efforts:

1: HORMONES

Our bodies are amazing. Long ago, we evolved to survive various threats: a surge of adrenaline sets off a cascade of physiologic changes that help us get away or defend ourselves. You know, the fight-or-flight response. Then, once the danger is passed, one of the hormones—cortisol—triggers our urge to build up our stores again and eat. So we’ll have the energy for the next threat that attacks.

It’s a good system…when there’s actual physical danger.

Now, the danger tends to be less often mortal danger of a predator…and more often a stack of bills that need to be paid. But our systems still function the same. Even once the immediate threat is resolved, there’s still a cascade of responses that happen. Particularly if the stress is sustained.

One of the hormones released in response to stress and danger is cortisol. And cortisol is an interesting beast—it has a few beneficial effects, but many downsides. One is that it triggers our urge to build up our stores again. Assuming we’ve just had to spend a bunch of valuable energy in fighting off a bear, we need to replenish that energy, so cortisol triggers an urge to eat. Helpful when there actually was a bear…less so when it was simply a triggering meeting at work.

And cortisol has other, shall we say, undesirable effects that are even longer-lasting than the urge to inhale an entire buffet. But that leads us to…

2: BELLY FAT

Among other things, cortisol sends signals to our metabolism that we’re going to need to store some of our incoming energy as belly fat. Belly fat, historically and evolutionary-wise, was an excellent adaptation that ensured our survival. A highly resilient way of storing excess energy, it could help us survive a long winter, a famine, a siege from a neighboring village…whatever.

Of course now when fewer sieges happen, it’s less beneficial. Trouble is, it’s what our bodies want to do: evolution selected for those belly fat genes. In days long past, the guy with the most resilient belly fat was the last guy to starve and die when a famine hit. That guy went on to be your ancestor….because all the other potential ancestors died before they could procreate. You got the resistant belly fat genes.

Lucky you, yes?

3: EMOTIONAL EATING

This one is more of a behavioral thing than strict physiology. Anxiety and stress tend to trigger emotional eating and this is a particular problem given our constant and excessive access to food of all types. In previous epochs, stress eating might have looked like you scarfing down an extra handful of nuts and seeds while sitting around the fire, listening to stories. Now, stress eating looks like you taking a sharp left into the Dairy Queen drive thru on your way home from work.

To make things worse, we’re hard-wired to want the worst stuff. High-sugar, high-fat food gives us a dopamine hit: the “feel good” neurotransmitter. It’s rewarding and soothing—at least temporarily. Until the inevitable guilt spiral of shame and self-blame begins.


Click here to download a free 2-page PDF checklist of my Top 10 Stress Detox Tools.


4: MINDLESS EATING

Stress and worry are highly distracting. Which means they are contributors to another related, yet distinct, eating problem: mindless eating. This is when we are eating without awareness, like an automaton. When we’re too busy in our own heads, tending to those spinning thoughts, we often don’t even notice that our arm keeps raising the fork to our mouth. Ten minutes later we hit bare plate and realize we’ve hardly tasted—let alone enjoyed—a single bite.

5: SLEEP DEPRIVATION

Sleep disruption and insomnia are common, but even more so when we’re stressed. Anxiety disrupts our sleep-wake cycle and messes with our sleep rhythms. As a result, we wake feeling exhausted and beat a straight path to the coffee maker—which can interfere with our sleep the next night, too.

The question is: how is that connected with weight?

It revolves around a pair of neurochemicals, called ghrelin and leptin, that control appetite. Essentially, ghrelin is your hunger hormone. Released by the lining of your stomach, it sends signals to your brain that it’s time to eat. Leptin basically does the opposite by sending a “full” signal.

It turns out lack of sleep disrupts the normal functioning of ghrelin and leptin. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation is associated with higher levels of ghrelin, more hunger, and more cravings—especially for carbs. We have more difficulty resisting temptation and sticking to our healthy eating resolve.

There’s a lot more to it, but the research has clearly demonstrated that when you’re sleep deprived, it’s more difficult to lose weight.

But let’s go back to Angela. After unpacking all the stressors in her life and the effect they were having, it was clear that when it came to her weight loss efforts, she would be fighting an uphill battle until she got a handle on her stress.

And maybe you’re in a similar situation. If you think stress is sabotaging your weight loss plans, what can you do about it?

Truth is, there is a lot you can do about stress. I have much more to say about this—stress is one of my favorite topics—but I’ll save the details for future posts.

In the meantime, if you want to get started on managing stress, you can download (for free!) a 2-page PDF checklist with my Top 10 Stress Detox Tools. Just click here to grab it!

Grab My Top 10 Stress Detox Tools

 


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A Sneaky Trick For Dealing With Cravings

popcorn

I love collecting tricks and tips to help people stay healthy and maintain a happy weight. Click through to read one of my all-time faves: a very easy trick (…and fashionable, to boot).

Here are some other posts that I put in the category of “weight loss ninja”:

Is Gluten Bad For You?I’ve been thinking about doing a post about gluten for a long time. Because it’s HUGE. There’s so much hype, so much mis-information, and more than a smidge of controversy when it comes to gluten.

You might have noticed gluten-free *everything* these days. (Even gluten-free cosmetics? Um, what?)

So when my lovely editor at YMC said she was collecting gluten-related posts for a feature, I decided the time was right to throw in my two cents.

In Is Gluten Bad For You? I break it all down: what gluten is, how it can harm you, who should avoid it, and why. If you’re curious or confused about all the fuss over gluten, head over there and check it out.

(A re-run of one of my fave topics…)

Do you eat for comfort? If we’re honest, most of us could say yes to this question.

The RARE indulgence (say, for example, a nose-dive into a pint of Haagen-Dazs dulce de leche in front of an open freezer door after ending a 4.5-year-long toxic relationship with a total narcissist and cat-hater…ahem…) is not going to kill anyone. But I think we all know this is not a great habit if it happens too often. Turning to food for every little speedbump in life? Not a good idea.

I read an interesting thing recently, about the differences between men and women and their comfort eating habits (in the book Mindless Eating, which I reviewed recently).

When surveyed about their top comfort food choices, men tend to name things like pasta, soup, and meatloaf. Women, on the other hand, tend to name ice cream, cookies, and chocolate.

Why the difference?

One theory: men feel “taken care of” or “doted upon” with these foods. Meals like mom always made…right? But for a woman, soup or meatloaf or lasagne represents, typically, work. Because they’re the ones cooking these comforting meals! Which turns out to be not so comforting if you’re the one slaving in front of a stove.

The comfort foods that women gravitate towards are snackish: quick bites, scarfed down with nary a cutting board or Crock Pot in sight. And certainly without dishes to wash afterwards. And that’s comfort, in my book.

Fascinating, no?

So, the question is: how do we get that comfort factor without having to go up a jeans size?

Start by re-training yourself to pay attention to those emotional eating cues. When your fingers start twitching toward the cookie tin, ask yourself: Am I really hungry? Really? No, I mean, like truly hungry?

If not, maybe you need to seek comfort elsewhere. Spa, anyone? Call a friend? Listen to your favorite music?

Beyond dealing with immediate urges, you might need to take a look at your greater need to deal with stress. And this requires a more cohesive strategy. Breathing exercises are a great place to start, and from there it depends on your personal preferences: regular exercise, meditation, yoga…

Also, set up your environment so it’s not your enemy. If you know you are a weak, weak woman in the presence of All-Dressed Ruffles…don’t keep them in the house. Sure, you can always drive to the store to pick up a bag, or five, but making it that much harder for yourself will help. Plus the drive will give you a moment for a sober second thought. And to talk yourself down from the precipice.

Get organized with your snacking. Meaning, keep your house/desk/purse stocked with quick and easy bites that are healthy. Like baby carrot sticks. Walnuts in a snack-size ziploc. Fruit.

Okay, I know baby carrots are an exceedingly poor substitute for chocolate. But it just may fill up that little corner or satisfy the need to munch on something long enough for you to distract yourself. Or get yourself outside for a walk, or to the yoga studio, or to your best friend’s house, or whatever it takes to abort the impending breakdown that triggered the chocolate craving in the first place.

Baby carrots. So crazy it just might work.

This was one of my very first posts…and since I happen to be in France right now on a family vacay I thought it a good time to re-run this favorite of mine:

Wouldn’t it be fabulous to indulge in buttery croissants and triple crème brie, all while maintaining a size four silhouette and the blood pressure of a 25-year old?

The French enjoy a famously rich diet. They shun exercise as gauche. Yet, on the streets of Paris, everyone appears thin and gorgeous. More importantly, France’s low rates of obesity and heart disease put North Americans to shame. It’s been called The French Paradox. And really, could anything be more unfair?

Eager to have your gâteau and eat it too? Yeah, me too.

Okay. So how do you make this a reality?

Well…I visit Europe as often as I can, and have witnessed this phenomenon first hand quite a bit. So here’s my decidedly unscientific, shamelessly anecdotal take on how they do it. And how you can too.

Savoring Food. French women enjoy every bite that passes their lips. There is no rushing. Meals are events, celebrations of food. Often lingered over, with family and friends. We know this sort of mindful eating is a cornerstone to a healthy diet.

Portion Control. This is key. In restaurants there are no heaped-up plates that would suitably serve a family of four. There are no giant slurpees or super size anything, for that matter. Meals and snacks are small, beautifully presented, high quality, and delicious.

Food Snobbery. Okay, let’s be honest: food is not the only thing the French could be accused of being snooty about. But here’s the mantra: if it’s not fabulous, don’t eat it. Don’t waste calories on mediocre food that provides fodder and little else.

Wine with Meals. Enjoy the beautiful antioxidants in a glass of wine…a major boon to health. Plus, this one helps with the savoring food thing. See above.

Exercise a la mode. No sweaty, tacky gyms or silly exercise fads. Instead, the French walk everywhere. Or better yet–bicycle. French cities are teeming with people on the streets. Moving, staying active, is simply a daily way of life.

Fresh First. Think local, think seasonal, think fresh. Whole foods whenever possible. The French enjoy a bounty of fresh, seasonal fruits and veggies, and regional cuisine. Minimize or eliminate the processed stuff, the frozen/dehydrated/rehydrated items that kinda pass as food.

Fashion Motivation. In France fashion is religion. And the best accessory a woman can wear? A slimmer shape under her clothes. The plain truth is that nothing makes clothes look better. Why not embrace your inner fashionista, and let this provide an extra reason to say no to that dessert.

No Movie Popcorn. When my husband and I were in France last year, we went to see the latest Bond movie in a theatre. We were the only ones to order popcorn. Small was the only size available. And…we were scolded (in angry French, from a woman who got right up from her seat and walked back several rows to us) for munching too loudly during the film. I know. Crazy, right? Works for them, though.

Voila.

Bon appetit!

You’ve resolved to stick to your diet. You’re feeling strong. And then…someone offers you a slice of your favourite: sticky-sweet pecan pie. Or a second helping of divine, cheesy, homemade lasagna.

How do you attempt to resist temptation?

If you’re like most people, you put on a pained expression, stick out your hand, shake your head—I can’t, you say. It’s like a physical act of being restrained.

But a new study suggests that those words “I can’t” are setting you up for failure. It’s a signal to yourself that you’re being deprived, being forced against your will, and that there’s some nebulous outside force controlling your actions. What does that set up? Feelings of rebellion. I’ll show you.

It’s human.

So what’s better, instead? To use the words “I don’t”. At least that’s what a recent study showed. Women who were instructed to use the phrase “I don’t” rather than saying “I can’t” were more likely to stick with their diet goals. Why? Because “I don’t” feels more empowering, and shows a sense of determination. Like you’re in charge, and this is what you’ve decided for the good of your own health.

The cool thing is that this is something you can learn to do. It’s a habit, like any other. (Read this, for a primer on how to change self-talk.)

This was a small study, but it’s an interesting line of research. I’m always fascinated by what makes people decide to do the things we do. We all know what we’re supposed to be doing…but something stops us from doing it, right?

As I frequently find myself saying (in fact, it’s part of my manifesto)…you and your body are on the same team.

The words “I don’t” just might help you act like a team.

Summer is on its way. And with those blossoming trees and wafts of warm air, thoughts turn to the inevitable: swimsuit season.

I don’t know if this induces shudders in you, but it certainly does me. I’ve long believed they use funhouse mirrors in swimsuit changerooms, you know the kind that make certain bits look too big, certain bits too short, certain bits too wobbly…

Anyway, whether it’s truly due to sadistic shop owners or, um, it’s just me, the time is ripe to spring into action and trim down a little.

I first wrote about natural ways to boost metabolism a few months ago. Here are 4 more tips:

1. Eat Breakfast.

I know, this isn’t exactly a new idea–but it really does help weight loss efforts. You need to literally break your overnight fast to get your engine revving–otherwise your body senses starvation and slows metabolism to conserve energy. So breakfast is a no-brainer. But what are your best choices? If you can include protein, you’re ahead of the game. Studies show that people who have a protein-rich breakfast have increased satiety and fewer cravings through the day. When I had gestational diabetes, one of my key strategies for steady blood sugar through the day was having protein in my breakfast. Yogurt, eggs, lean ham are all good choices. Other ideas: peanut butter on whole grain toast, or a fruit/yogurt smoothie, perhaps with whey protein powder. Or sprinkle nuts in your oatmeal, or munch on a high protein granola.

2. Sleep.

Research has repeatedly shown the dangers of insufficient sleep to your health…and to your waistline. In studies, people who get insufficient sleep are more likely to be obese. One of the culprits? Ghrelin, your hunger hormone. Seems this little demon goes a bit postal if you don’t get enough sleep. Triggering those bleary-eyed pantry ransackings in search of stray oreos. Sleep doesn’t come easily for you? Read this.

3. Deal with stress.

Unremitting stress causes increases in cortisol–a hormone that specifically favors fat accumulation in your tummy and midsection. Not to mention the whole stress eating thing, and comfort food-seeking tendencies when stressed (that tend to lean more towards Haagen Daazs and less towards broccoli). Do your metabolism a favor and get your stress under control. There are lots of effective ways. Start here.

4. Nibble on chocolate.

I saved the best for last, here. A new study from the University of California found that adults who were frequent chocolate eaters had a lower body mass index (BMI) than people who ate chocolate infrequently. And it wasn’t because the chocolate fans ate fewer calories overall or exercised more. So what’s up with chocolate? The study authors believe that because chocolate is rich in certain antioxidants, it may have a beneficial effect on our metabolism. Also, chocolate contains epicatechins, a flavonoid that has been shown in animal studies to increase lean muscle mass and reduce weight. (If this makes you happy, read more good news about chocolate.)

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North Americans may be many things, but one thing we’re not? Svelte. Not on average, anyway. And certainly not compared to the rest of the world. Are there things we could learn from our friends in other countries around the globe? Why, yes. Yes there are. Join me on a little tour.

Japan

In Okinawa, Japan, they eat using this principle: hara hachi bu. Roughly translated, it’s an instruction to eat until you’re 80% full. And it’s an excellent practice to live by. There’s no reason to eat until you’re stuffed. Also, there’s a delay in the message from your stomach to your brain that signals “full”. By the time you register that you’ve had enough…you’ve already overdone it.

India

This is the birthplace of yoga, of course. I’m a big fan of yoga; there are a multitude of health benefits for taking up the practice. And a slimmer physique happens to be one of them. A recent study showed that long-term yoga participants have lower BMIs than other exercisers. Perhaps it’s the mindfulness training that does the trick. Because here’s what happens when you engage in Mindless Eating.

France

Well, you know what they say: French women don’t get fat. I’m not sure anyone has fully figured out this (highly irritating) mystery…but I have some thoughts. I imagine it has to do with portion control, taking pleasure in food, and long leisurely meals together with friends & family. Oh, and chocolate for breakfast.  

Greece

It’s not entirely unique to the sun-soaked people of Greece, but the Mediterranean Diet is one we can all embrace, to improve our heart health, our waistlines, and our pleasure in food. Olives? Wine? Garlic? Yes please.

Brazil

To understand why it makes sense to eat like a Brazilian, think Gisele. Think thong bikinis on the beaches of Rio. A staple on the Brazilian table is rice-and-beans. It’s a low-fat, high-protein, high-fiber choice, which helps stabilize blood sugar. A study in Obesity Research examined the Brazilian diet in detail and found that a traditional diet mainly consisting of rice and beans lowers the risk of being overweight by about 14%.

Italy

All over Italy, in cities and small villages alike, la passegiata is an enduring tradition. It’s an informal stroll around town each evening before, or after, the family dinner. Italians promenade the streets, socializing, getting fresh air and a little exercise before settling in for an evening. To my mind, it certainly beats plopping on the couch to break open a bag of chips and stare at another episode of The Bachelor.

Thailand

All that spicy stuff in Thai curries and noodle dishes means there’s plenty of capsaicin in the Thai diet. That’s the substance that makes food hot…and it not only boosts metabolism, but also: you simply can’t gobble down spicy food at the same rate you can a cheeseburger. Fiery food means slower eating. And that’s a good thing for weight loss.

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Ever feel like you’re not exactly “The Boss” when it comes to your hunger? That’s because, um, you’re not. Not always, anyway. Let me introduce you to a little something called: ghrelin

AKA: your hunger hormone. 

You can read more about ghrelin, and (more importantly) how to control the wee beastie, over on my blog at Yummy Mummy Club. My recent post: What is Ghrelin? (Know Thine Enemy).

 

It sounds like the holy grail: Boost your metabolism, lose weight without even trying!

Is such a thing even possible? All manner of supplements trumpet this claim. But to my mind, that seems pretty dubious. Chemicals to boost metabolism are out there for sure (meth, anyone?)…but they’re not always healthy

So, instead of that, are there natural ways to accomplish this goal?

Indeed there are. Here are some of them:

Increase muscle mass.

As in weight training. Muscle burns more calories than fat. Which means it’s just math from here on in: if that bod contains proportionately more muscle, you’ll burn at a higher metabolic rate. Pump that iron, people.

Drink green tea.

Research is beginning to show promise in this department. It’s the epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) in green tea that may improve bellyfat distribution, boost metabolism, and curb appetite.

Get NEAT.

This stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis, and basically it’s a way to get more activity (thus more metabolic burn) in your day without having to resort (gasp!) to hitting the gym. Excellent primer on NEAT right here.

Spice things up.

Studies are increasingly demonstrating that spices can help with weight loss efforts. Capsaicin (that’s the fiery stuff in hot peppers) appears to improve fat oxidation and metabolic rate and curb appetite. A new study showed a blend of turmeric, cinnamon, rosemary, oregano, garlic powder, and paprika reduced post-meal insulin and triglyceride levels.

Looking for more sneaky ways to jack up your weight loss efforts? Read this. And this. And, um, this.