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How Stress Affects Fat Loss (and How to Not Let It)

How Stress Affects Fat Loss (and How to Not Let It)

You probably have all the nutrition related information you could ever need to lose fat. You already know that to lose fat you should eat less of that and more of this.

Often the question is not what to do to lose fat, but how to stick to doing what you already know you should do. And it’s often the underlying (or overpowering) and unmanaged stress that makes following healthy eating habits a challenge.

Stress pushes hormones on to a rollercoaster

When stress gets a stranglehold, the hunger hormone ghrelin goes up. Now, while ghrelin goes up and hunger kicks in, the satiety hormone leptin goes down. Yikes.

While ghrelin and leptin are having a ball on a rollercoaster, your hunger and fullness signals are all over the place. Just eating more fibre won’t solve your stress hunger.

And as the stress falsifies your hunger signals, it will also cause your body to push its metabolism down. So you end up eating more while also burning fewer calories. Not great for fat loss. 

Throw some stress related sleeping issues in the mix

Ever been stressed up to your eyeballs and struggled to fall asleep? Or you’ve gotten to sleep alright, but woken up feeling like you’ve barely closed an eyelid? Me too. Stress and restful sleep get along just about as well as the Gallagher brothers.

When you’re not getting a good night’s rest, you’re more likely to feel tired, impulsive, and hazy. Which can then cause you to make poor food choices.

Now, combine elevated food cravings, lack of satiety, poor decision making and lower metabolism, and we are getting an idea of why stress management needs to be a part of any fat loss plan. 

But that’s not quite the worst of it yet

With the lack of sleep comes increased self-doubt. And as we are wired to find eating comforting (probably because of some pre-historic lizard brain thing), it’s common to turn to it to “manage” emotions instead of dealing with whatever is really the source of our stress. Hence why emotional eating is such a common problem.

The habit loop’s role in stress eating

Like any habit, stress eating follows a craving event that sets off the whole cascade of a habit loop1. Let’s (over) simplify and use working at home as an example.

  1. Cue
    You are working at your desk, trying to make the deadline of whatever you’re working on. (Come on, I don’t know the ins and outs of your professional life. Make something up. Ok fine, you’re trying to solve a math question. Happy? I’m sorry it’s come to this. I didn’t want it to be math either. But here we are, so let’s move along.)
  2. Craving or a sense that something is missing
    You get stuck with a challenging task and feel an unstoppable urge to relieve the tension immediately. (I told you, this math thing was bound to be a stress inducing choice.)
  3. Response
    You walk to the kitchen, rummage through the pantry, find an old Easter egg and eat it. (I already picked math earlier, so it doesn’t really matter which holiday treat I put in here. This is all just ridiculous now.)
  4. Reward
    You feel brief pleasure for satisfying your craving. Eating something becomes associated with getting stuck in a challenging math task.

How to stop stress eating

Reduce stress eating by managing and limiting your stress sources

Tolerance to stress is highly individual. Some are more resilient to it and can tolerate multiple taps filling the stress bucket at the same time. While others get easily overwhelmed by less. You’ll likely know where you stand in this universal stress tolerance scale.

 Here are just some common sources of stress:

  • Work
  • Finances
  • Parenthood troubles, or just parenthood. It’s great to be a parent. But it’s also relentless.
  • Relationship troubles
  • Toxic relationships (dicks whose company makes you feel yuck)
  • Covid
  • Childhood traumas
  • News
  • Excessive screen time
  • Too many coffees and beers and potato chips and reality television shows
  • Noise and pollution. (Not the AC/DC song)
  • Your neighbours, in case they are dicks too

What gets often neglected is that stress from the things that we think are good for us also live in the same bucket:

  • Training (especially high intensity)
  • Calorie restrictions (duct tape diet)
  • Type-A mentality (like when you can’t let other people win in the escalators)

It’s irrelevant whether we think the source of stress as bad. It all fills the same bucket. Having too many of these taps of stress open at once can make our stress bucket overflow.

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

What’s more important than trying to find stress releasing activities is to limit how many stress taps we have open at once. 

Once some taps are taken care of, it’s helpful to implement a few stress reducing activities as well.

Side-Show Box about severe emotional eating
For anyone in that situation, getting help is step number one.
The reasons behind uncontrollable emotional eating often go deeper than just everyday worries.

When we can’t handle our stress, or struggle with anxiety and depression from financial troubles, relationship problems, childhood traumas, or the like, it’s important to understand those issues and work through them with an appropriately qualified mental health professional.

Regardless of your current resilience to stress, there are ways to improve by incorporating some of these into your life:

  • Meaningful relationships
  • Meditation, mindfulness or slow breathing exercises
  • Stoicism, especially negative visualisation
  • Slow physical activity (walking, yoga, gardening, paddle boarding)
  • Laughing
  • Sex
  • Playing an instrument or listening to music
  • Reading
  • Art (drawing, painting, sculpting, carving a laughing donkey out of marmor)
  • Spending time in the nature
  • Keeping a gratitude diary and noticing beauty in everyday moments
  • Helping others and expecting nothing in return
  • Recreational sports
  • Hot sauna, warm bath, long shower

Before you starting changing them habit loops

I left this one last since working on a habit loop on its own rarely brings on a sustainable change. Hence it sits at the top of the pyramid, cherry on top, sort of thing. 

Think of it this way: working on negative eating habits without addressing the source of stress is like trying to renovate that second bathroom with a pack Hello Kitty bandaids. Whereas addressing the source of stress first is like starting the renovation with a sledgehammer to remove the mouldy tiles.

But don’t discard Hello Kitty bandaids altogether. No room for hate in here. Focusing on the habit loop can bring crucial awareness to our everyday eating habits.

Keep a stress eating diary and brainstorm a good vibes menu

After a week, you’ll likely start seeing patterns in your stress eating. You can then change your responses to your triggers by creating a list of actions other than eating, aka good vibes menu:

  • Take few deep breaths
  • Stand up for a quick stretch
  • Drink a glass of water
  • Chew a piece of dental gum (debatable, but works for some. Ehm, me)
  • Listen to a song you like
  • Balance a pencil on your nose
  • Juggle while balancing a pencil on your nose
  • Shadow boxing

For good habits to last, they need to be enjoyable 

Resisting temptation is about as rewarding as using a toothpick to open a safe box. It quickly depletes your willpower. Use instant gratification to your advantage by choosing your responses to cravings from actions that bring you immediate pleasure. If you love music, but hate stretching (me too), choose accordingly.

Sticking with these responses is easier if you can rid your cupboards of foods that you’ll likely crave when the trigger happens. Tricky for anyone who doesn’t live on their own. Unless you have an unchallenged authority on what gets eaten in your house. 

Be kind to yourself and show self-compassion

Changing stress eating is hard. No one is going to nail it 100% of the time, and we all slip. Instead of beating yourself up for it, try to be kind to yourself and find the bright spots in what you’re doing.

It’s helpful to keep asking yourself these two questions each time you’ve dealt with a trigger. Regardless of whether you fell for food or used an alternative from the good vibes menu.

  1. What went well?
  2. What did I learn?

Then build on it. One by one.

Conclusion

Most of us have all the information we could ever need for fat loss. It’s often the unmanaged stress that makes following every other healthy eating habit a challenge.

When we let stress get a stranglehold, the hunger hormone ghrelin goes up and satiety hormone leptin goes down. As the stress elevates our food cravings and hunger with false signals, it will also push our metabolism down.

Stress also affects our sleep. As we’re not getting a good night’s rest, we are more likely to feel tired, impulsive, and hazy. All of which can then make us more prone to making poor food choices. With the lack of sleep comes increased self-doubt. And it’s common to turn to eating to manage our emotions instead of dealing with whatever is really stressing us.

All the stress fills the same bucket. The first thing to do is to reduce the sources of stress we have at once. While also including relaxing activities into our days.

We can then keep a stress eating diary to figure out triggers for cravings. Then, we can slowly move away from food related responses by having a good vibes menu of things that bring us pleasure.


Sources:
1James Clear – Atomic Habits

Why Stress Causes People to Overeat
Effect of Stress on the Body
Good Stress Bad Stress
Strategies for Getting Control of Stress

How to Stick with a Diet

How to Stick with a Diet

“I don’t even care how many sticks I have to fetch to burn off this one.”
Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

The first domino falls. Maybe you swore to quit sugar (nooooo), carbs (say it isn’t so) or coconut ice cream (I can’t even). And now the initial burning motivation and excitement have worn off. 

This attempt at a diet is becoming yet another prematurely ended diet in the mausoleum of failed diets. You might find yourself in despair. Questioning how you could better stick to a diet plan.

It requires a change of perspective

What if you would move away from trying to stick to a strict diet? By committing to a non-diet-diet. By resisting the urge to follow the template that everyone else does: setting on fire all that is delicious before the ultimate willpower stretching, and eventually breaking, attempt at an intense body transformation based on deprivation.

No. You can succeed by embracing the opposite. By being reasonable. Let the others focus on what they can achieve in a month or two. Only to fail yet again. You can play the long game. Focus on what results you can achieve in a year. And to keep them for another twenty years. 

Commit to showing up for foundational changes 

Give your willpower a break and ban nothing. You can eat whatever you want, within reasonable quantities of course. And sometimes less so. Because occasionally there are days when it’s impossible to choose between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. So you’ll end up having both. 

And reasonable isn’t just easier on willpower. It’s also better for your health. A recent study from The University of Helsinki1 suggests that people (even those with normal weight) with a history of failed diet attempts (“I gotta get heaps shredded for Barcelona”) have a higher chance of developing type II diabetes compared to the non-diet folks.

We also know that failed dieting may also lead to repeated weight loss attempts and therefore weight cycling. It’s a vicious cycle once it gets going.

Implementing small changes that eventually topple over

What if you’d commit to making changes that almost feel too easy? Like you’re cheating the gods of diet (Atkins?) by making up your own rules that require only a little willpower.

Changes that are small enough not to even valid a social media update. Because they don’t sound diehard. Because they’re not. In the world of diets, being reasonable and focusing on small changes is lame and boring. Unless of course you like sustainable, long-lasting results.

But a reasonable diet isn’t all pretty butterflies made of sparkling fairy floss

Following simple, reasonable eating habits requires resilience. If you choose to follow “I will duct tape my mouth shut for a month so please text if you want to communicate” – diet you can just muster through hell for a month. It won’t be easy. But most of us can deal with that sort of tribulation for 30 days. 

Reasonable approach in contrast requires persistence, even blind faith. It’s about repeating unsexy habits for a long time. It’s trusting the process that eventually there will be progress. Perhaps without seeing initial results for weeks.

Maybe you’ll end up stacking small habits on top of another for a while with no noticeable physical changes. Until one day that old friend compliments how you now somehow look better in the wind.

Being reasonable requires stubborn resistance to boredom

Trying to eat slowly until 80% full is not as arousing and concrete as damning sugar, eliminating biscuits that look like the 80s sitcom star Alf, or literally working out a donut on a rower. Eventually things get boring.

The challenge of boredom seven folds if you’re still starting out and haven’t seen substantial results from your efforts. Your mind naturally questions if the methods deserve your attention.

But instead of quitting when the boredom kicks in, you’ll double down on what you started. You re-focus on the small daily actions over the fluctuating excitement and motivation rollercoaster.

Because the internet is trying to convince you to stop being reasonable

Your news feed is filled with the excitement of new, more intense, fast diets. The ones that promise excellent results in only a few funny weeks. But you can counteract them by acknowledging what’s happening in your head: 

While being stuck at doing the challenging work of your current diet, you are seeing the possibility of a different diet. Something that perhaps sounds better than what you are currently doing. The comparison in your head is far from fair.

You are comparing the hard parts of the current diet to the upsides and promises of something new. The new thing will always look better. Because you are not in it right now doing the work.

Notice when this is happening, and it makes it easier to refocus on what you are currently doing. And to keep showing up.

Yeah, the grass is heaps greener on this side. What of it?
Photo by Adam King on Unsplash

The thing that makes a reasonable diet so powerful for a sustainable fat loss

It requires frequent self-reflection. You need to keep looking back at what you did, why you did it, and what were the results based on those decisions. 

Then there are the continuous adjustments that go with it. You have guidelines, not strict templates to follow. It’s not plug and play. It’s reflect-plug-adjust-play-reflect-plug-adjust-play repeat, repeat, repeat. You learn as you go.

This need for self-reflection stops some from sticking with a reasonable diet for long enough to see results. Especially in the beginning, when it’s all new and you are still trying to figure things out. But sticking with it really pays off.

Bringing it all together

The beauty of learning reasonable eating habits is that nothing is completely off limits. Being reasonable has it’s challenges, but it doesn’t require an intense amount of willpower. Especially when compared to the more strict duck tape diets.

It’s about learning mindful eating, performing frequent self-reflection, and discovering what foods work the best, for you. Then building your eating habits around them. 

It’s not about being perfect. But about doing it well enough to get the results you want. And then keeping them for life.

Even if it takes longer than the typical 30 days that the internet wants you to believe.


1 Self-report dieting attempts and intentional weight loss in a general adult population : Associations with long-term weight gain and risk of type 2 diabetes

My Favourite Fat Loss Workout

My Favourite Fat Loss Workout

You might (or might not) be interested to know how many photos of boots come up when searching ‘boots’. A lot.
Photo by Jacob Rank on Unsplash

Maybe it’s because of its simplicity and unsexiness that it doesn’t sell a ton of books. Or make splashing headlines in the newspapers. Or lead to sexy Instagram posts. And maybe that’s why I am so drawn to recommending a daily walk for fat loss.

Let’s explore why even a seemingly insignificant 20 minute daily walk can lead to serious result over the course a year. Since I am known to making obvious more obvious than necessary, I’ll dig deeper than obviously necessary.

Breaking this 20 minute average into a weekly habit could be any of the following scenarios:

  • Two 70 minute walks
  • Three 46 minute walks
  • Four 35 minute walks
  • Five 28 minute walks
  • Six 24 minute walks
  • Seven 20 minute walks (duh)

What does this daily 20 minutes add up to in a year?

20 minutes x 365 days = 121 hours 40 minutes.

Just over five full days walking from sunrise to sunrise. That’s 1.37% of the entire year for those of you who love knowing percentages. I know I do.

How much distance could we cover over the course of a year?

20 minutes of daily walking could take you from Sydney to…um… Canberra.

According to Google Maps, the average walking speed is 4.82km per hour. That’s over 586km of distance we could cover in a year if we walk by Google’s conservative walk speed estimates.

Now, let’s say you’re like me and prefer a slightly faster walk. Still staying on the more conservative side (we’re not running anywhere here) so let’s settle on a speed of 6km per hour.

Over the course of a year, that’s 730km. Now, because this is interesting, let’s get a bit better idea of the distance by putting it in context.

Where could we go with 730km?

  • The 7 Bridges Walk (28km) in Sydney 26 times
  • A conservative estimate of 100 Bondi to Coogee Walks (6km)
  • A 186km short of getting from the Sydney Opera House to Melbourne Square. But with only 20 minutes of walking a day, I’m sure we could pick up the pace to make the difference.
  • A return trip from the Sydney Opera House to the Parliament House in Canberra (620km). And another four 7 Bridges Walks once back in Sydney. Although, why you’d decide to go to Canberra is another thing altogether.
  • Three and a half return trips to The Three Sisters lookout in the Blue Mountains (214km), again leaving from the Opera House
  • Crossing the Airbus A350 wingspan (64.75m) 11 274 times

Ok, I’ll stop there. I think we all got the idea.

What would happen with your fat loss goals if you could do this for a year?

When combined with reasonable eating habits, a small daily walk routine could be all one needs when trying to shed some unwanted kilograms. Add few strength training sessions a week for lean muscle and you’re set.

Or, maybe we should all walk daily to boost up cardiovascular fitness and not get fat. Whatever. But apparently it’s good for us. I probably wouldn’t use that mileage to go to Canberra though. As lovely as it is in there.