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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

We Are All Just a Bunch of Teenagers

We Are All Just a Bunch of Teenagers

“You guys here for the new Britney Spears perfume too? No? Yeah. Me neither.”
Photo by Jorge Tung on Unsplash

I grew up with a close group of friends who bonded over heavy, angry (such a teenage cliche) music. For us, bands like Black Sabbath, Danzig and Pantera added another layer of insulation during the -30 degree winters of the Finnish Lapland. Tony Iommi’s riffs made the months of darkness just that little bit lighter.

This was the time before streaming and YouTube. The era of the dial-up internet. When some people I know, and definitely not me, waited for six long minutes to open up that Pam Anderson photo at the local library.

In the late 90s, with the internet in its temperamental toddler years, physical record stores were still all the rage. It was wandering inside these small houses of sound where you hoped to discover something old. Like The Blizzard of Ozz from the 80s. Or to be the first in line to hear The Misfits’ American Psycho.

And if you had somehow saved up enough pennies, you walked up to the counter and bought the CD. Then you fought your way in the wind and ice over to your friend’s house, kicked off your shoes, zipped down your thick jacket, and walked through the house saying an awkward “hi” to the parents as you half ran past them towards the room full of your buddies. The smell of coffee and youth punching you in the face as you opened the door.

And then, and then when you opened the case, placed the disc in the player and clicked “play” for everyone to hear. At that moment you made yourself vulnerable for the hope of status. Hoping your friends would dig this new thing as much as you did.

Status and group dynamics were a big deal for a 15-year-old.

Consider the uneven risk versus reward of pressing play. If your friends liked what you brought over, they might have nodded to the song. Maybe even mumbled a word or two of encouragement, commemorating of your fine choice. That was it. And if they didn’t like it? Man, they made fun of it for days. If not weeks or months.

The burning pain when I, for reasons lost on me now, bought over a Fastball record will forever be burned in my memory. For years after this we associated anything awful with ‘Fastball’. “How’s that burger.” “A real Fastball.” I paid the emotional tax on status for pressing play on a record that went against the collective grain of the group.

Then there were times when someone else played a hot new record while you were not there. And everyone raved about it. But you had yet to hear it. You really felt the tension of missing out on what was in.

Looking back on all of this as a somewhat mature level-headed adult, it is laughable. Something to put down in as part of the inescapable soul-stirring insecurities of a teenager.

Or is it?

Adults are not that different from a bunch of teenagers.

We think we live above the herd mentality and make our own decisions. But, except for those who live in a bunker oblivious to the world around them, the actions and thoughts of our community heavily influence the actions and thoughts of you and I.

We still care about our status. And we still feel the uncomfortable tension of being left behind. It’s that (sub) conscious feeling of not wanting to feel like an outsider.

We choose the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the activities we do, and the things we believe in based on what it does to our status within the group we want to associate with.

What did you think when you saw the first generation Air Pods?

A lot of folks, myself included, thought they looked like something made out of the scrap metal salvaged from the Starship Enterprise. Yet others bought them with glee. In their group the status comes from being the person who wears the latest Apple tech. And if you’re one of the first to have it? You win in the status race.

What we do, wear and say are signals that tells a part of the story of who we are. Something that we think is worth telling. Something that will elevate our status within their circle.

Sideshow Box
Status and tension are why that outrageous Tesla Cybertruck is brilliant marketing. Some people will absolutely hate the design. But a tiny group will find it hard to resist.

Not necessarily because it will be the best and most beautiful car, they’ve ever seen. But because of its “WFT effect”. Buying and driving it tells something about the status that the owner wants to convey. And like the Air Pods, it’s a signal that’s hard to miss.

As more people started wearing the Air Pods it trickled from the early adopters to mainstream. The more Star Trek scrap metal we saw, the more appealing the design became.

Not because the Air Pods sounded great. But because wearing them told a story. And more people started to feel the tension of being left behind. Just like a bunch of teenagers.

Status and tension affect how much we exercise, what we eat, and how we spend our money.

Group dynamics affect our health too. If all our friends are active, training, eating healthy and going for hikes on the weekends, well, we likely want to do that too. We want to feel included. Or more fittingly, we don’t want to feel like we’re missing out.

The alternative is true too. If all our friends still party like Keith did in the 70s, we’ll probably feel the tension of being left behind. Not only on weekends when they’re doing it, but also on Mondays when they talk about what they did. And on Thursdays when they revise their plans for the weekend ahead.

Keeping up and maintaining our status is often the easier, more appealing short-term solution. Something that doesn’t always work to our advantage in the long-term.

I still chase the status of being the first to listen to something new.

To this day we send new songs and albums back and forth with one of my best friends. The same friend whose house I speed walked through all those years ago.

It’s still a thrill to get the dibs on a new song or a band we both like. With music, I love the feeling I get from being the first. And I know he feels the same. Just like we both did over 20 years ago.

And as much as I try to convince myself that it’s irrelevant whether he likes what I share with him… I know it’s not quite that simple.

We’re just a like a bunch of teenagers.


Reading Seth Godin’s This Is Marketing made me understand the power of status and tension, and the power they have in our culture. For the good and the bad.

Break Bad Habits In The New Year

Break Bad Habits In The New Year

FYI, playing guitar is not a bad habit according to Joonas. But this guy seems to think otherwise. Or maybe he’s just navigating his inner Jimi Hendrix. Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s leave it at that.
Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

You know who’s a prolific writer? To date, he’s written 83 novels, 5 non-fiction books and over 200 short stories [1]. He has sold over 350 million copies of his books, and at least 24 of his books or stories are made into movies. How is this sort of productivity even possible?

In the morning he aimlessly wanders around his house, knocks back a few cups of coffee while trying to figure out what to do with his time. If he’s lucky, he’ll get a whoof of inspiration and starts writing. Or, if the inspiration doesn’t whisper stories to him that morning he might just take it easy and play non-alcoholic beer bong (he’s been sober since the late 80s) with his buddies. 

Of course not. When he’s working on a story, he sets himself a daily target of 2000 words and writes until he’s completed it. The writer has a set space, free of distractions where he does only one thing, his writing. It’s all about the habit of writing while eliminating distracting bad habits.

So, instead of making a vague and super lame New Year’s resolution this year, like “I will drink less alcohol”, use the science of habits to sort it out.

The simple science of habits

In Atomic Habits James Clear goes balls deep into how to become a master of good habits (or slave of bad ones). By recognising the power of the habit loop and learning to use it to your advantage you’ll figure out how not to suck with your New Year’s resolutions this year. Here’s what the habit loop looks like when typed instead of drawn. Because, no time to draw on New Year’s Eve.

  • Cue 
  • Craving
  • Response
  • Reward

(Not much of a loop, but bear with me.) Let’s go through them one by one.

Cue

Cue is something that alerts your brain of the start of the habit loop. A bit of information predicting a reward at the end of the loop. Things like:

  • Seeing your phone on the table
  • Meeting a specific person
  • Seeing a bottle of water

A rule to remember is to make cues for bad habits invisible. If you have a habit of checking your phone as soon as you notice it on the table, put it in the draw. To not let things escalate with a specific person, don’t meet up with them (makes sense in a second). Or, buy a bottle of water so you don’t have to steal it from an old lady (will also make sense in a second).

Craving

This is a sense that something is missing after the cue kicks in. It’s the interpreter of the earlier cue. You don’t crave alcohol itself but what it gives you, “a desire to change your internal state” and an attempt to address your underlying motives. Usually a feeling that brings immediate pleasure, or makes your feel you better about yourself or the situation you’re in.

  • Seeing your phone on the table (Cue) 
  • You’re bored and want to check Facebook. I mean, maybe someone’s liked you earlier post about what you ate for breakfast because your life is so fucking interesting (Craving)
  • Meeting a specific person (Cue) 
  • You get the urge to have an alcoholic beverage, because this specific person is too heaaaaaavyyyyy to deal with your sober self [2] (Craving)
  • Seeing a bottle of water (Cue) 
  • You want a gulp of water (Craving)

Response

To no one’s surprise this is the action you take to relieve the tension of craving.

  • Seeing your phone on the table (Cue)
  • You’re bored and want to check Facebook (Craving)
  • You check your phone embracing it like your long-lost lover who went missing when his boat capsized in a heavy storm so long ago that you’d almost forgotten about him but now he’s back and you can’t believe it because apparently he was shipwrecked on an island and lived there with his only companion, a baseball named Sergey (Response)
  • Meeting a specific person (Cue) 
  • You get the urge to have an alcoholic beverage (Craving)
  • You slam down three Black Tooth Grins while everyone in the bar stares at you in despise (Response)
  • Seeing a bottle of water (Cue) 
  • You want a gulp of water (Craving)
  • You steal the bottle off a nice old lady who was carrying it and her small dog and now you take a big gulp of water (Response) Also, you make me sick. How could you do that to such a lovely lady?

For a bad habit you want to make the response as difficult as possible. Meet in a coffee shop instead of in a bar. Make a deal that you pay your friend $100 each time you have a drink. Or book an important meeting right after the meeting where you can’t turn up sober. 

Reward

Satisfying the craving floods your brain chemistry with immense pleasure and joy.

  • Seeing your phone on the table (Cue)
  • You’re bored and want to check Facebook (Craving)
  • You check your phone (Response)
  • You’ll get an instant gratification and a jolt that briefly dissipates your boredom. Checking your phone becomes associated with killing boredom (Reward) 
  • Meeting a specific person (Cue) 
  • You get the urge to have an alcoholic beverage (Craving)
  • You slam down three Black Tooth Grins (Response)
  • You can tolerate your companion’s bullshit stories about how great they are. Black Tooth Grin becomes associated with meeting your companion (Reward)
  • Seeing a bottle of water (Cue) 
  • Your mouth suddenly feels dry and you want a gulp of water (Craving)
  • You drink a gulp of water (while the old lady is disgusted with your behaviour and about to call police) (Response)
  • The water hugs your mouth like a bowl of milk hugs yellow fruit loops. Drinking water becomes associated with a dry mouth. (Reward) But you’ll also go to jail. And rightfully so. What’s wrong with you??!.

What is immediately rewarded is repeated, we humans love love loooove instant gratification. Try to make the reward of a bad habit as unsatisfying and ungratifying as possible. 

In the Black Tooth Grin example you could bust out reverse psychology and act boring and dull so your annoying “friend” would not want to hang out with you anymore. Or, alternatively, you could also ask a random person to punch you in the knee cap each time you have a drink. 

Start by creating awareness

It’s hard to change the things you do when you’re not aware of them. Start taking notes of your bad habits. When you notice something that doesn’t align with whom you want to be, write it down and try to answer these questions:

  • What’s the habit?
  • What was the cue?
  • What did I crave?
  • What was my response?
  • What was the reward?

If you’re like most of us, you’ll soon come up with a solid list of habits you’d rather change. What you’ll probably notice is that any habit that brings immediate pleasure, and you hadn’t implemented purposefully, is usually not good for your long-term goals. Watching porn, drinking alcohol, smoking, sleeping in… 

Except coffee. Drinking coffee feels amazing and is definitely good for your long-term goals. And yes, I am biased because I love coffee and refuse to change my coffee drinking habits.

Set your environment

Instead of using your limited resource of willpower to stop doing bad habits, use your environment to your advantage. 

As mentioned earlier, putting your phone out of sight makes it easier to stop checking it. Meeting your annoying friend in a cafe (or not at all) makes it easier to avoid drinking. Buying a bottle of water makes you less tempted to steal it from an old lady.

Summary

The habit loop: 

  • Cue – Alerts your brain of the start of the habit loop. Make cues leading to bad habits invisible.
  • Craving – The interpreter of the earlier cue and an attempt to address your underlying motives. A feeling that brings immediate pleasure.
  • Response – The action you take to relieve the tension of craving. Make the response difficult.
  • Reward – Satisfying the craving floods your brain chemistry with immense pleasure and joy. Make the reward of a bad habit unsatisfying and ungratifying.

Start breaking bad habits by bringing awareness to them. Make a note each time you do a habit that doesn’t align with whom you want to be. Then deconstruct the habit by finding cue, craving, response and reward.

Instead of abusing your limited willpower set your environment to support good habits and avoid the bad ones. Hide the phone, meet in a cafe, buy a bottle of water.

About that prolific writer…

It’s Stephen King. Highfive if you knew.

Next step

Why Your Habits Don’t Work
Habit Change Made Ridiculously Simple
Reflecting on 365 Days Without Alcohol


Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear

[1] Wikipedia
[2] Come on, we all have one. Or seven. But really, I have none.

Why Motivation Isn’t Enough

Why Motivation Isn’t Enough

This person knows nothing of routines. Such a clown.

This much we’ve already established in the past: you need to find your why to get anywhere with your health and training goals. But, the why driving the motivation in itself isn’t enough to keep you going towards your goals when you get blindsided with life’s randomness.

You know, when you get elbow checked to the head and momentarily struggle to find the east.

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The Future You Wants You to Stop Skipping Workouts. Mmmkay…

The Future You Wants You to Stop Skipping Workouts. Mmmkay…

Photo by Paul Frenzel

I picked up a great advice from the recent episode of Bettercast with Steven Ledbetter and Julie Dirksen where they dwelled into the skills of teaching.

Ask this simple question when you are about to skip a workout, about to walk through the golden arches for dinner, or when reaching for the third piece of double chocolate brownie. Especially if those things seem to be something that you are doing with a too much of a frequency.

Use the future based thinking to propel you forward, to tighten up the shoes and to pull on your best pair of training shorts. And not necessary in that order.

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The Health and Fitness Skill Deficit Puzzle

The Health and Fitness Skill Deficit Puzzle

Live and Loud. With skill.

 

Once we decide that we want something we usually want it now. Not tomorrow or ten week from now but now, dammit! Obviously it’s ok to want something now. But the issue with now is that we seek for instant gratification and it clouds our rational thinking as we only focus on the short-term solution.

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