While we can’t eliminate every major source of stress in our lives, we can control — to some extent — the impact it has on our bodies. Scientists have found that there are ways to alleviate stress and retrain your brain to improve your diet and prevent stress-induced weight gain.
Our bodies evolved to secrete the stress hormone cortisol when our brain senses danger. Cortisol elevates your heart rate, blood pressure and blood-sugar levels. In the short term, cortisol protects you from immediate threats by sending your body into fight-or-flight mode. But when your job, finances and other circumstances ratchet up your stress levels on a regular basis, it can lead to chronic cortisol elevation.
One side effect of cortisol is that it promotes body fat, especially belly and visceral fat, which is a particularly toxic kind of fat that surrounds internal organs. Studies show that people with higher cortisol levels tend to have a higher body mass index.
If you constantly grapple with stress, it can send signals to your body to accumulate fat, said A. Janet Tomiyama, the head of the Dieting, Stress and Health Lab at the University of California at Los Angeles.
“Even if you don’t change a single thing that you eat, the fact that you are stressed is going to promote fat deposition,” said Tomiyama, who has studied the mechanisms behind stress and obesity.
In laboratory studies, scientists have found that administering synthetic versions of cortisol to people causes them to eat substantially more calories than people who are given a placebo. That’s in part because cortisol reduces your brain’s sensitivity to leptin, also known as the satiety hormone, which regulates your appetite and makes you feel full.
In one study of department store workers, people ate more sugar, saturated fat and overall calories when they had to work long, demanding shifts compared with when they worked less stressful shifts with lighter workloads.
Even stress from activities we enjoy can lead to overeating. In one study, researchers followed ardent football fans in different cities. They found that fans whose NFL teams lost on Sunday consumed more calories and saturated fat the next day. Fans whose teams won ate less food and saturated fat the following day. The scientists found similar results when they looked at the dietary patterns of French soccer fans.
Chocolate, candy, ice cream and other comfort foods alleviate stress in part through their effects on the brain. They activate reward regions such as the nucleus accumbens, flooding them with dopamine, the hormone that promotes pleasure, and other neurotransmitters.
Some people find that in stressful situations their appetites plummet. Scientists are not quite sure why stress leads some people to the cookie jar and not others, but weight appears to play a role. Some studies suggest that insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, which is more common in people with obesity, may spur changes in brain activity that intensify food cravings in response to stress.
While you can’t always reduce the stress in your life, you can retrain your brain to want better foods when you’re stress eating.
In a study published last year, Tomiyama and her colleagues recruited 100 adults with elevated stress levels and split them into two groups. Everyone was trained to do a daily, six-minute stress reduction exercise called progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and relaxing your muscles from toes to head. You can find an example of it here. This deep relaxation technique has been shown in studies to reduce stress and anxiety.
But members of one group were assigned to eat a serving of fresh fruit such as sliced pineapple, honeydew and pears, about five minutes into each of their daily progressive muscle relaxation sessions. After one week of this, the researchers found that eating just the fruit alone made the participants feel less stressed and put them in a better mood. By pairing the fruit with a relaxation exercise, their brains began to view the fruit as something that reduced their stress levels — essentially turning the fruit into comfort food.
“Anytime two things happen at the same time your mind creates a connection between them,” Tomiyama said. “By pairing relaxation and fruit together, your mind starts to see them as the same thing. After a while, you won’t even need to do the six minutes of relaxation: All you’ll need to do is eat the fruit, and you’ll get that same relaxation benefit.”
Tomiyama offered a few tips for those who want to try this.
- Choose a type of fruit that you don’t eat often, such as star fruit, kiwi or mango. If fresh versions of these fruits are too expensive or inconvenient, use frozen fruit.
- Try this exercise at different times of day and at different locations in your home or office. If you always do this at your kitchen table, it will only work at your kitchen table.
- At times when you are feeling stressed or anxious, reach for your “comfort fruit” instead of a bag of potato chips.
“This is a way to hack your comfort eating habit for good,” Tomiyama said.
By: Anahad O’Connor
Critics by: Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
Foods can help tame stress in several ways. Comfort foods, like a bowl of warm oatmeal, boost levels of serotonin, a calming brain chemical. Other foods can cut levels of cortisol and adrenaline, stress hormones that take a toll on the body over time. A healthy diet can help counter the impact of stress by shoring up the immune system and lowering blood pressure. Do you know which foods are stress busters?
All carbs prompt the brain to make more serotonin. For a steady supply of this feel-good chemical, it’s best to eat complex carbs, which take longer to digest. Good choices include whole-grain breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals, including old-fashioned oatmeal. Complex carbs can also help you feel balanced by stabilizing blood sugar levels.
Dietitians usually recommend steering clear of simple carbs, which include sweets and soda. But in a pinch, these foods can hit the spot. They’re digested quickly, leading to a spike in serotonin. Still, it doesn’t last long, and simple carbs can also spike blood sugar, There are better options. So don’t make these a stress-relieving habit; you should limit them.
Oranges make the list for their wealth of vitamin C. Studies suggest this vitamin can curb levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system. In one study of people with high blood pressure, blood pressure and levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) returned to normal more quickly when people took vitamin C before a stressful task.
Too little magnesium may trigger headaches and fatigue, compounding the effects of stress. One cup of spinach helps you stock back up on magnesium. Don’t like spinach? Other green, leafy vegetables are good magnesium sources. Or try some cooked soybeans or a fillet of salmon, also high in magnesium.
To keep stress in check, make friends with naturally fatty fish. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish such as salmon and tuna, can prevent surges in stress hormones and may help protect against heart disease, depression, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). For a healthysupply of feel-good omega-3s, aim to eat at least 3.5 ounces of fatty fish at least twice a week.
Drinking black tea may help you recover from stressful events more quickly. One study compared people who drank 4 cups of tea daily for 6 weeks with people who drank another beverage. The tea drinkers reported feeling calmer and had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after stressful situations.
Pistachios, as well as other nuts and seeds, are good sources of healthy fats. Eating a handful of pistachios, walnuts, or almonds every day may help lower your cholesterol, ease inflammation in your heart’s arteries, make diabetes less likely, and protect you against the effects of stress. Don’t overdo it, though: Nuts are rich in calories.
One of the best ways to reduce high blood pressure is to get enough potassium, and half an avocado has more potassium than a medium-sized banana. A little bit of guacamole, made from avocado, might be a good choice when stress has you craving a high-fat treat. Avocados are high in fat and calories, though, so watch your portion size.
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