• Neil G

Why Stress Makes You Fat...

Weight management is a very personal topic for me.

I struggled with my weight throughout my teenage years and most of my adult life. Only in the last couple of years have I begun to expand my knowledge on the topic and understand some of the complex dynamics that are at play.

the battle to lose weight

This knowledge, and some experimentation, has led me to shed a fair amount of weight and keep it off, although it remains a constant battle for me. As I continue my research and learn even more, I feel better armed with suitable weapons to take on that battle.

Here's one truly fascinating and enlightening insight I've taken on board recently, I'll do my best to put it in simple terms.

First, a summary

  • stress shuts down some of your body's background functions, including digestion, in preparation for the famous 'fight or flight' response

  • if eating when stressed (or becoming stressed when eating), the body hardly realises it's eating; automatic functions like absorbing nutrients and feeling full do not work properly

  • this creates an unhelpful cycle of eating, anxiety, hunger, stress and back to eating

  • read on to find out more details including a couple of steps you can take to break the cycle

And now, the full(er) story...

Your body has a physiological (i.e. physical/chemical/biological) response to 'stress'. This response occurs when you perceive there is a threat to you. This threat can be REAL or IMAGINARY, the body responds in the same way.

When you are in a 'stressed out' state, perhaps due to pressure at work, anxiety about a relationship, worry about a family illness, or perhaps guilt about your own bad habits and self-neglect, your body is in a CONSTANT state of stress response. It perceives that issue as a threat.

You might be aware of some of the well known physiological responses to stress: increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, dilated pupils, all parts of preparation for the famous 'fight or flight' response.

And, less well known, here's what the stress response does to your insides.

  • digestion shuts down as blood is sent to the extremities

  • vitamins, minerals and other micro-nutrients are not absorbed

  • metabolism slows down to prepare for whatever challenge awaits

If you eat when in this condition, your body hardly realises you are eating, and the food processing function will not kick in efficiently.

If you are 'stressed out', you are constantly in this condition, which means whenever you eat, your body is not processing the food properly.

The result: you end up eating more, way more than you need, and you are hungry again sooner. Your whole hunger/feed/digestion cycle is not working properly.

If you are overweight, it's also likely that meal times and snacking are a time of guilt and regret. I've known this myself. Your body responds to these feeling with the stress response. So even the act of eating produces the stress response.

emotional snacking

Of course this presents a problem, but it also presents a huge opportunity for you.

Take control of your feelings at meal times, and you can change your physiological response, and switch back on the digestive and metabolic processes that your body was designed for.

How can you do this? Here are some practical tips, which you can start today:

  • make a ritual of meal times (sit at the table, lay out your favourite crockery and cutlery, take your time, switch off your devices)

  • enjoy your food; look at the shapes and colours; savour the flavours and textures; eat slowly and deliberately

  • block out thoughts of guilt with positive affirmations (e.g. "I'm eating this food to give my body the fuel it needs to function"); say it out loud if you have to!

This kind of ritual should be repeated as often as possible to become a habit. Your dining experience needs to become a pleasure, not a guilt trip. So, your body no longer activates the stress response when you eat, and you begin to process and digest properly, and your body feels full, and then, finally, hungry again, at appropriate times. This is the beginning.

Remember, the stress response is not your fault. You are reacting to your body's natural, subconscious inclinations in the circumstances that it finds itself. You are not foolish, greedy or weak. You have been misled by your own body and mind. You can now start to take control. It might take time. You are now armed with some knowledge to help you to change that situation, and begin the battle again.

I've tried to keep this as simple as possible. Of course there are other factors at play that I haven't brought up here. Leave a comment if you have any questions or other thoughts. And contact me privately if you want to explore how I can support you if you are ready to take this battle on.

Image credits: bigstockphoto.com

#personal #mindfulness #science #behaviour #mindset #habits

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