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Ever tried to soothe stress with ice cream?

Well, if you haven’t you’re in the minority, because there is just something about pressure-filled days that seems to leave us craving the soothing rewards of fatty and sugary foods.

Unfortunately, as our days get busier and our jobs ever more stressful, this type of coping response too often produces a very undesirable consequence – weight gain and obesity.

But is it as simple as this? Do we get fat just because we comfort eat to soothe feelings of stress, or is there more to the story?

It turns out that stress leads us to comfort eat as a way to manage anxiety and that chronic stress also causes changes to the way the body stores fat.

1. Frequent comfort eating can pack on the pounds, but resisting urges to comfort eat can be tough, and it’s not a simple matter of will power either. Chronic stress leads to changes in the brain that make us crave certain types of food – and the brain learns to use the pleasures of certain types of food to regulate some of the negative consequences of an overabundance of circulating neural stress hormones.

2. Chronic stress also seems to change the regulation of fat cells, causing the growth of more and larger fat cells, particularly around the abdomen. As a consequence of this, two people might eat the same number of calories per day, but the chronically-stressed one of the pair would end up with a much larger belly than his more relaxed counterpart.

We Comfort Eat to Relieve Feelings of Stress

It makes intuitive sense that we would turn to foods that provide moments of pleasure when feeling overwhelmed with life, but are we really as conscious of the choices we make as we think we are?

If you’re stressed out – the answer is probably not.

Chronic stress leads to changes in the brain’s neurochemistry. While under chronic stress your brain is bathed in high levels of steroids called glucocorticoids (GCs). Some of the effects of chronic high levels of GCs include:

  • Increased activity in the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala – leading to decision making made more on the basis of emotion than on higher executive thinking.1
  • Increased salience for compulsive or pleasurable activities – when chronically stressed, the brain comes to pay more attention to potentially gratifying activities, such as eating sugary or fatty foods.  The real world result of this, for example, is that a fast food commercial has much more impact on you when you’re feeling chronically stressed than it would otherwise – with increased salience for pleasurable foods, the chronically stressed brain is very attuned to environmental food cues and the presence of food cues can result in strong food cravings.
  • A drive to increase abdominal fat stores – at an unconscious level, when chronically stressed we may overeat as a way to increase abdominal fat. High levels of abdominal fat reduce catecholamine levels in the brain stem and result in decreased activity in the chronic stress response network. So at the biological level, we are driven to get fatter around the middle as a way to reduce feelings of anxiety related to chronic stress.2

So though on one level you always choose what you eat, when you’re chronically stressed hidden biological forces guide you toward making food-choices that help to reduce anxiety - and it all happens far below the level of consciousness.

When Stressed – The Body Gets Better at Making Fat

When chronically stressed, we turn unconsciously toward comfort eating – and we also get better at turning the calories we do eat into fat stores on the body.

Chronic stress causes an increase in a fat regulating chemical in the body called neuropeptide Y (NPY). Increased NPY levels cause a person to increase their numbers of fat cells and for existing fat cells to grow larger.3

Cut Stress to Shed Pounds

Don’t let stress sabotage your weight-loss goals.

If you’re obese and know you live a high-stress lifestyle you have to concede that your lifestyle works against your ability to manage your weight.

If you’re serious about weight loss, you have to be serious about stress reduction too.

Here’s a quick list of stress reduction/management tips for whenever you’re ready to get started!

10 Ways to Cut Stress (to Lose Weight)

  1. Look for the positives in any situation and don’t dwell on the negatives
  2. Get enough sleep
  3. Get some physical exercise every day
  4. Take time each day to do something you enjoy
  5. Cut down on alcohol, coffee and cigarettes
  6. Practice deep breathing exercises
  7. Practice meditation, yoga or a martial art
  8. Make an effort to drive slowly on commutes, giving yourself plenty of time, to reduce driving stress
  9. Get organized and break down overwhelming tasks into doable bits
  10. Make an effort to talk socially with friends or family every day (they’ll help you keep things in perspective)4
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Page last updated Jun 23, 2012

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