Feeling stressed can trigger more than migraine headaches or a meltdown. You could become obese! Learn how to chill out and keep your body fat in check
You can't take much more. It's quarter to three on a very bad day that's already included ripped tights, a confrontation with your boss, and a guilt trip from your mother. You need a pick-me-up, a way to make it through the rest of the day without exploding. You need a double-hot-fudge sundae. Or a giant plateful offries. Or, OK, even the month-old bag of probably-stale pretzels that's buried at the bottom of your desk drawer.
If you've ever felt this way, then you sure don't need us to tell you that stress can make you fat. And you're not alone: In a survey of more than 1,800 people last year, the American Psychological Association re ports, 43 percent of respondents admitted to overeating or to eating unhealthy foods in response to stress during the previous month. And wo men were more apt to do it than men.
Forget Häagen-Dazs therapy. Research has uncovered new information about the link between stress and snacking (check out these goodies that are only 100 calories!) that can help you break the cycle--no therapist required. And once you find out how to fight the biological odds stacked against you, not only will you be more relaxed, but the waistband on your jeans will be too.
Why Cavewomen Didn't Wear Spanx: Stress, Fat, and Darwin
The word stress gets tossed around more than the lettuce at Saladworks. But in scientific terms, that headache-inducing, nerve-jangling feeling is your body's way of trying to maintain balance in the midst of threatening and fast-changing situations. Your body achieves that balance by releasing hormones. So whether you've lost your wallet or missed a period, your body deals in the only way it knows how: by signaling the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (the docs call it epinephrine).
You're probably familiar with adrenaline's role as the fight-or-flight hormone; it gives you instant energy so you can get out of harm's way. In prehistoric times, we needed that boost to fight or outrun predators; today, it's still useful when you have to physically respond to a threatening situation.
The logic behind our need to feed under duress, however, is less obvious. After all, doesn't stuffing down cupcakes only make you lethargic? And isn't that the opposite of what you'd think should happen when adrenaline courses through your system? For the answer, you need to get familiar with cortisol. This other stress hormone is released by your adrenal glands at the same time as adrenaline, but you usually don't feel its effect for an hour or so. When you do, you know it--cortisol's sole function is to make you ravenous. See WH's Ultimate Meal Plan for a detailed healthy eating guide for weight loss success and to get more energy.
"Cortisol is one of the most potent appetite signals we have," says nutritional biochemist Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., author of The Metabolic Method. Some research suggests that it may interfere with the signals that control appetite (ghrelin) and satiety (leptin). Stress and cortisol might also cause our brain to find more pleasure in sweets. And because cortisol can mix up your hunger signals and suppress your brain's normal reward system, feeling tense may make you crave a decadent dessert even after a big meal.
This was a good thing back when we just burned through a ton of calories fleeing a sabretooth and had to refuel. But now that stress is more about busy schedules and unbalanced checkbooks than about outrunning ferocious beasts, our biggest threat is having our butts grow to behemoth proportions.
While it might seem as if stress weakens your willpower, the real culprit is cortisol. The reason you want a brownie instead of raw veggies when you're stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic is that cortisol demands the most readily available sources of energy: high-fat, simple-carb foods that your body can use quickly. That's why big bowls of pasta, chocolate bars, and potato chips have gained comfort-food status--they're exactly what your body craves in times of trouble.
We're not the only animals who respond to stress this way. Studies have shown that even mice gravitate toward fatty foods when they're ticked off. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania offered lab mice their regular food and, for a one-hour window each day, as many high-fat food pellets as they could eat. When the mice were stressed (since rodents, as far as we know, don't sweat gridlock, researchers riled them up by exposing them to the odor of a predator, among other things), they scarfed as many of the high-fat pellets as they could in that hour, and ate even more day after day. Result: a lot of fat, angry little critters.