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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

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