We’ve all been there – you’ve had a stressful day and before you know it out comes the wine and the chocolate. Turning to food to cope with stressful situations in our lives is a common pattern for many. To make matters worse, the weight gain that we experience as a result just adds more stress, which can lead to more overeating, and so the spiral continues. Apart from the obvious comfort eating stress can actually affect our weight in a number of ways.
How Stress Influences Weight Gain
When we are under stress, our stress hormones including cortisol prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response by flooding it with glucose. While this will give you a short burst of energy, when cortisol levels become elevated over prolonged period imbalances can result. Chronic stress can lead to excess glucose, raised blood sugar levels, raised insulin and insulin resistance. When this happens your cells are not able to utilise the glucose efficiently and so it is stored as body fat. In addition, as your cells are crying out for energy, you will not only feel fatigued, but your body sends hunger signals to the brain, influencing hormones linked to appetite and cravings. This explains why we often eat when under stress. Furthermore, research has shown that stress can lead to a preference for “comfort foods” (typically those high in calories, fat and sugar) which only aggravates the problem.
Vitamins and minerals
Ongoing stress can deplete many vitamins and minerals in the body so making the right food choices is particularly important. The adrenal glands which produce our stress hormones require sufficient protein (particularly the amino acid tyrosine) and key nutrients such as vitamin C, B vitamins (especially Pantothenic acid B5), magnesium, zinc and omega 3 fats. By optimising your intake of these nutrients you can help improve resilience to the stress you are under. Certain foods and nutrients can also help curb cravings and balance your blood sugar which is often imbalanced under stress. If you are looking to not only beat stress but avoid piling on the pounds here are some of the top foods to choose.
Why does stress lead to more belly fat?
Unfortunately not only can stress lead to weight gain it can result in more abdominal fat. When cortisol levels are raised it mobilises our stored fat and relocates them to visceral fat cells (those under the muscle, deep in the abdomen). Cortisol also helps these fat cells to mature and we end up with a bigger tummy. To add further insult as cortisol is catabolic our muscle mass declines and so body composition changes. Less muscle affects our metabolism making it even harder to lose weight.
Top stress-busting foods
Yes, you can eat to beat stress. Try these foods…
Salmon and other oily fish
Salmon is packed with anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats shown in research to lower the stress response. Intake of these fats have also been associated with a reduction in visceral fat. Try grilling a salmon fillet with lemon and herbs or flake a hot smoked salmon fillet into a salad for lunch.
Packed with protein this is an easy way to help curb cravings. Yogurt is a natural source of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) which studies have shown can help reduce stress and decrease inflammation which may be associated with weight gain. Try a bowl of Greek yogurt with berries and seeds for a speedy breakfast.
A potent anti-inflammatory spice shown in studies to reduce the inflammation associated with weight gain. The active component curcumin appears to also help lower anxiety and stress. Add a spoonful to smoothies, make your own turmeric latte or add to curry.
Apple cider vinegar
Popular for weight loss vinegar is thought to help with blood sugar balance and may improve insulin sensitivity which in turn may support weight loss. Try drizzling over salads or cooked vegetables.
Researchers have found eating a couple of squares of dark chocolate (30g) can reduce stress hormones, stabilise blood glucose and may help control cravings. Perfect as a treat when you need a pick me up.
Eggs are packed with protein and nutrients that not only help you feel fuller and balance blood sugar levels but also support our stress response. Whole eggs are a good source of choline, a nutrient important for brain health and mood. Try scrambled eggs with spinach for an energy-packed breakfast
While peanut butter may be high in calories it is packed with protein and healthy fats to help curb appetite and cravings. It is loaded with the amino acid L- tryptophan which is needed for our mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin which also has an impact on appetite. Peanut butter and other nut butters are a good source of stress-busting magnesium. Add a spoonful to porridge or spread on a couple of oatcakes for a healthy snack.
Prawns and other seafood
These are loaded with stress supporting nutrients including B vitamins, zinc and selenium. Being a good source of the amino acid taurine they can help boost our mood through the production of dopamine. Toss prawns into a stir fry or curry for a speedy meal.
The combination of protein, fibre and slow-releasing carbs makes oats the ideal weight loss fuel. They also provide a number of stress supporting nutrients including zinc, magnesium, B vitamins, iron and manganese. Try a bowl of warming porridge sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with berries.
A great source of vitamin C which is vital for a healthy stress response. Grapefruits may also improve insulin sensitivity which may help with weight loss. In a study of 91 obese individuals, eating half a fresh grapefruit before meals caused weight loss of 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg) over a period of 12 weeks. Try fresh grapefruit for breakfast or a snack.
Broccoli and other greens
Low in calories, high in fibre and nutrients including magnesium, which can help calm the mind when under stress. Fill your plate with these veggies or make broccoli soup for a healthy lunch.
Chickpeas and other beans and pulses are packed with stress-busting vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, potassium, B vitamins, zinc and selenium. The combination of protein and fibre makes them really satisfying too. For a healthy snack toss a can of chickpeas in a little olive oil and paprika and bake until crispy.
An ideal sweet treat berries like blueberries are also the perfect stress food. Loaded with flavonoid antioxidants and vitamin C to keep the body’s immune system healthy which is often compromised under stress. Try topping Greek yogurt with a handful of berries for a sweet treat.
Craving carbs? Sweet potatoes provide plenty of slow-release carbohydrates to help balance blood sugar. A good source of potassium, vitamin C and vitamin A which are all important for tackling stress. Bake sweet potatoes and fill with cottage cheese and salad for a simple lunch.
Low in fat and high in protein turkey provides plenty of the amino acid tryptophan, which is converted to serotonin to boost mood and reduce anxiety. Use turkey mince in chilli or shape into burgers.