Is Stress Increasing The Size Of Your Waistline? And What You Can Do About It

If you’ve been trying to lose weight yet the pounds are not shifting, you may need to look at how stress could be affecting your weight loss efforts.

Many people follow strict dietary programs, increase their exercise and seem to be doing all the right things for weight loss, yet still don’t seem to be able to lose weight.

It’s worth considering that often the most common barrier to weight loss success is stress. Supporting your stress levels may be much more effective for weight loss than following a specific weight loss program.

What exactly is stress?

Stress is a true or perceived threat to the body and it can come in many forms. We have an ancient biological stress response built into our bodies that serves us in times of threat. It’s called our fight or flight response. Our hunter gatherer ancestors used this fight or flight mechanism to literally fight or run for their lives. Today however, we’re rarely in lifethreatening situations, yet we have a variety of daily low level stressors that keep us in a constant state of biochemical stress, such as deadlines, traffic jams, toxic relationships, financial concerns and more.

How stress affects your body

The are two types of stress hormone - adrenaline and cortisol. The first one is responsible for the fight or flight response and the second one is pumped out as a result of the daily low-level stresses mentioned above. Cortisol affects the way your body stores fat, and too much cortisol leads to fat being accumulated around the middle.

Increased cortisol also affects the balance of your thyroid hormones leading to a lower metabolic rate. As thyroid hormones are responsible for how your body uses energy and stores fat, they play a crucial role in weight loss.

Increased cortisol also disrupts the delicate balance of sex hormones (oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone), making you more likely to suffer from hormonal imbalances such as PCOS, fertility issues, low libido and PMS. These conditions are very stressful to experience in themselves, and so the stress cycle continues.

Stress increases inflammation in your body, which leads to dysregulation of blood sugar levels resulting in cravings, overeating and sugar consumption. These habits cause fat storage and more stress as the body tries to cope. It really is a vicious cycle. Also stressed people are more likely to overeat in an attempt to improve their mood. According to an article in Guardian, the authors of a paper published in the International Journal of Obesity said, “Individuals who identified themselves as being ‘overweight’ were more likely to report overeating in response to stress and this predicted subsequent weight gain.”

Stress compromises digestive function and can lead to malabsorption of nutrients that are required for important biological processes, such as neurotransmitter and hormonal production. As nutrient deficiencies set-in, the body’s need for quality nourishment increases. Too often however in this state, people are less likely to look after themselves and eat a highly nutritious diet, instead opting for quick-fix foods.

8 ways to support your stress levels with nutrition:

  1. Increase good fats from oily fish, such as wild salmon, sardines, trout, herrings and anchovies, avocados, raw nuts and seeds, cold-pressed seed oils and olives. Good fats lower inflammation and feed your brain, which is made up of 60% fat. Omega 3 fats are particularly important and good sources include raw walnuts and pumpkin seeds.
  2. Eat protein with each meal and snack to provide your body with the raw materials it needs to hormone and neurotransmitter production. Protein also helps to keep your blood sugar levels even and keeps you fuller for longer, helping to banish unhealthy cravings. Good protein sources include tofu, nuts, seeds, meat, fish, seafood, eggs and legumes. Always choose organic where you can to minimise toxicity from intensively-reared meat production.
  3. Increase fresh fruits and vegetables. They are packed with beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals, as well as being high in fibre to support your digestion and low in calories. Most fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamin C which is highly depleted in times of stress.
  4. Increase magnesium-rich foods from green leafy vegetables, almonds, avocados and whole grains. Magnesium is “nature’s tranquilliser” and helps the body to come out of stress response, whilst improving sleep and inducing feelings of calm.
  5. Eat tryptophan-rich foods to support your body’s serotonin levels (your feel-good neurotransmitter). Eat turkey, tofu, eggs, seafood, miso, almonds, seaweed and bananas.
  6. Eat tyrosine-rich foods to provide your body the raw materials for the production of hormones and dopamine, which is responsible for motivation and regulation of addictions. Eat eggs, chicken, soya, nuts, cheese and apricots.
  7. Avoid white, refined carbohydrates and sugar as they upset blood sugar balance and increase insulin, as well as cortisol levels. Both these hormones increase fat storage and keep you in the sugar/stress cycle.
  8. Eat regular healthy snacks to keep your blood sugar levels balanced. This might sound counter-intuitive to weight loss, however going without food for too long lowers blood sugar which in turn increases stress hormone output, cravings and overeating. Snack on berries, apples, nuts and seeds, as well as crudités and dips instead of reaching for unhealthy snacks, like pastries and biscuits.

Finding the balance

As well as getting wise on how to support your stress response with nutrition, it’s advisable that you begin addressing your work/life balance. You may be surprised to hear that vigorous exercise is not always a good thing when you want to lose weight. In fact, too much intense exercise can actually increase your body’s stress response, making it even harder to lose weight. Activities that lower stress, such as walking, swimming, yoga, dancing or gardening can be more effective than going to the gym for your weight loss efforts.

Lifestyle factors to reduce your stress

Anything that induces a deep sense of relaxation will lower your body’s stress response and help your body lose weight. Think lavender baths, long walks in nature, getting a massage and listening to soothing music - whatever works for you to reach a state of relaxation.

Meditation effectively lowers stress and can help you become more mindful of your food and lifestyle choices and the driving forces behind them. If you’ve not tried meditation before, pop down to your local Buddhist centre where you can learn meditation basics, such as breath awareness. The Buddhists are great at teaching these skills.

Yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Gong are ancient practices that focus on mindfulness, deep breathing and relaxation to induce a state of calm in the body and mind. Try out these practices and attend your class regularly, as well as nurturing a home-based practice for accumulative benefits. If you opt for yoga, seek out a Hatha yoga class which focuses on relaxation, meditation and slow postures, rather than more vigorous styles like Ashtanga or Vinyasa Flow.

Quality supplements can also address underlying imbalances as to why stress may be increasing your waistline. A nutritional therapist can help you look at the personal factors that may be affecting your ability to lose weight. Adrenal saliva testing, quality formulas for heathy adrenal function, as well as specific dietary and lifestyle changes may be recommended to you.

Article by Jo Rowkins DipNT MBANT
Nutritional Therapist