How to Halt Stress Eating + Stay on Track
stress is by far One of the biggest barriers to consistently healthy eating
Especially if you’re trying to knock off a few kilos, managing your stress is critical. Why? There are several reasons why stress is a massive player in preventing you from staying consistent + ultimately losing the weight + they all revolve around the fact that stress is hugely influential on both your body’s response to food + fat deposition as well as on your behaviour (which inevitably affects how + what you eat). Let’s go briefly into all of these.
Ill-managed stress exposes you to hormones that inhibit fat loss.
When stress is chronic (i.e. it hangs around for a long time) it creates long term exposure to a hormone that is meant to only be used in fight or flight situations. Cortisol, the body’s key stress hormone, (which gets switched on when stress is high…think heavy workloads at work, getting to school drop off on time, difficult in laws, depression + anxiety to name a few) is the key player in chronic stress, but unfortunately for those trying to avoid falling prey to sweet treats + junk food, cortisol is also one of the deciders of where sugar is stored in the body. When you don’t have effective stress management techniques in place, your cortisol levels remain high for longer than it should. One of cortisol’s primary jobs is to tell the body to store the sugar you eat as fat (rather than use it in our exercise + day to day activities) as a back up storage of energy. Studies have shown that cortisol may play a role in increased levels of abdominal fat.
High cortisol levels tend to also make us want to eat more sugar + fat + to make matters worse, chronic exposure to cortisol also lowers your immune system. Why is this relevant? Well…what is the first thing that you do when you’re feeling crappy with a head cold? Stop exercising + eat comfort food.
Talk about a total lose-lose situation if you are trying to eat more healthily right?
Ill-managed stress also make us more likely to eat junk food
In addition to the physiological reasons behind why stress will inhibit your weight loss are the behaviour changes that you tend to make when you are chronically stressed. These changes to your routine + thinking can have equally disastrous effects on your ability to be consistent with healthy eating + by default, reduce your likelihood of being successful with weight loss.
Typically when things get stressful, you simply stop doing all of the stuff that is making you lose weight. It sounds obvious but have you really thought about how often this actually happens? How often do you say to yourself that you’re too tired, too sleep deprived, too busy to do all of the things you know will keep you in good health. And it’s likely because of stress! It’s because when you get stressed, you stop the exercise, the salads, the good sleep + the meal prep. And before you know it your ‘just getting by’ plan is well + truly in place + that plan is more likely to include any one (or more) of quick dinners (often takeaway or short cuts), cafeteria or bought lunches, snacking on easy (high calorie) snacks to keep your energy up + drinking more alcohol.
And truth be told, it’s also the length of time that it takes you to get back on that healthy eating path that is the real nail in the coffin because once you’ve given up, not only have you not lost weight but you’re also left with the belief that you just encountered another diet or healthy eating plan that didn’t work, another fitness regime that was too hard, + another time that you didn’t succeed.
Which is like napalm to your confidence + your belief that you can do it.
In order to tackle the two of them together, the obvious starting point is to reduce or eliminate the stress itself - but for most of us, eliminating the causes of your stress is a long-term project.
Therefore implementing stress management strategies that align with your weight loss strategies is the key to tackling them both.
How to design stress management techniques that are aligned with your weight loss goals.
You can’t just pack up + move to an island paradise so instead, it comes down to good planning, being easy on yourself, having achievable goals + being able to back off your goals just a bit without swaying too far when things get a bit much. How do you do this?
Take a good hard look at your weight loss strategy. Make sure it is goal oriented + not too lofty. If you’re only just able to be consistent with your plan when you are not stressed, it’s going to be the first thing you drop when you do get stressed. If you need somewhere to start, download my Weight Loss Cheat Sheet - it was designed for exactly that purpose.
I know quick success with a weight loss plan is so appealing but if you encounter stress often, pick only one thing that will contribute to you losing weight + practice it. Don’t try + do it all at once because again, it’s too easy to drop it all when times are tough. The idea is that if you practice it enough, when things get stressed, you’re less likely to drop that one thing because it has become a habit.
Avoid weight loss strategies that add to your stress. Choose strategies and plans that don’t make you meal prep for hours or can be adaptable when things go pear shaped. Sometimes some weight loss plans can actually increase cortisol levels (albeit transiently) so if your weight loss plan is causing you to be more fatigued or affecting your sleep or energy levels, stop it + seek the advice of a professional.
Be easy on yourself. The absolute worst thing you can do in stressful times is to criticise yourself more for not following through on all the lofty goals you have set for yourself while things are super hectic. Developing healthy habits + losing weight takes time + practice. You will get there, just not at this moment. And that’s ok.
Have a game plan in place before the proverbial hits the fan. For the most part, we actually know the things that cause us the most stress. And they are more predictable than you would think. Aside from unexpected personal tragedy (which we cannot predict), we actually know a lot of the commonly stressful things that might cause us to abandon our healthy habits - think deadlines at work, EOFY madness, sick kids in the winter months, clients cancelling without notice….the list is endless + specific to you. So before they happen, you need a quick, easily implementable plan that you can do as soon as things go south (see the next point).
For some clients I suggest a plan which involves a set of ‘bare minimums’. These are one or more core weight loss habits that they know they can do 100%, no matter how stressful the day/week/month is. This is a short term plan + is designed to get you through the tough times but is not meant to be there forever. Sticking to this plan may not help you to lose weight during this period of time, instead it is a holding pattern that stops you from first, feeling like you have dropped the ball completely (which means you maintain a level of control on the situation) + second, stops you from gaining weight when things are stressful, which prevents you from feeling like you are never going to succeed. A plan like this allows you to get back on track sooner once the stress dies down because you didn’t give up altogether when the going got tough. Some examples of Bare Minimum plans that clients + I have worked out are:
No snacks, just eat three meals a day (but it doesn’t matter what those meals are)
Drink two litres of water a day + go on three x 30 minute walks across the week
Include a palm size of protein dense foods with every meal
Develop + use a go-to, pre-designed meal plan for your dinners that you know you can make easily + the family will happily eat
Meditation for five minutes before bed + doing a 14 -16 hour fast before the next morning meal
Taking a good quality multivitamin daily + including vegetables with every meal
No or limited alcohol +/or limiting coffee to one or two a day
Including anti stress foods into each meal (There are a number of key stress-reducing foods that help to replenish the nutrients that are burnt out from stress and mitigate the damage caused by long-term exposure to stress hormones you can read about them in an article I wrote here.)
7. Finally, getting some support specific to your situation is essential in managing both your weight + your stress. If stress is becoming an overwhelming part of your life, + if you’re trying to lose weight at the same time, support often needs to come from multiple places including but not limited to:
Saying no to too much work
A gym membership
Or taking that holiday that you’ve been wanting to
Giving some thought to how you’re going to fit your weight loss strategies into a stressful life is well worth your time. Stress for so many of us is unavoidable but you can make life easier on yourself.
Want someone to design a weight loss program that fits into a stressful life? I have! Click below for more info.
Hey! I’m Zoe Morosini, a Brisbane based nutritionist on a mission to show every woman that wants to lose weight that she doesn’t have to lose her mind trying.