A couple of weeks ago I introduced the importance of a food diary when making nutritional changes, to help you to start recognising the strong relationship between your mood and your food. I hope it’s helping you to strike up a better dialogue with your food choices.
This week I want to extend further. It’s not just what we eat that makes us gain or retain weight, it’s our lifestyles as a whole, and specifically how we cope with stress. Stress is an inevitable part of life but long-term stress makes you fat: fact. This isn’t because stress often leads to binge ‘comfort eating’ – mainlining chocolate bars and consuming cartons of ice-cream in one sitting – although that of course plays a part; it’s actually because stress directly alters our metabolic function by disrupting glucose levels. If you want to get a summer body you need to LIVE clean, not just eat clean.
When we are under stress - this can be a series of negative thoughts, running for the bus in the rain or proper fear in a frightening situation - the body produces the hormone cortisol, which is great in the short term as it is specifically designed to help us in dangerous or strenuous situations by providing fuel to our muscles and brain for energy and focus. But a constant drip feed of this hormone is not at all helpful to us day in, day out. Long-term stress activates a cascade of hormonal pathways that release large amounts of cortisol from our adrenal glands. This extra cortisol enhances lipogenesis (aka: fat creation), as well as slowing down our metabolic rate. If you find you still gain weight despite eating better and you struggle to get out of bed every day, then cortisol could be an issue for you.
Luckily, there are a number of good habits that you can practice to reduce stress and beat that “cortisol bulge”:
1. Eat unprocessed, natural, preferably organic nutrient-rich foods like the ones I’m suggesting each week. High cortisol makes us crave fatty, sugar-laden, refined carbohydrates (hence the binges when we’re stressed). If you feed that craving you end up stressing your body and mind even more.
2. Be mindful - don’t eat in a rush, it puts our body into fight or flight mode which hinders our amazing digestive process which can lead to excess bloating. Oh, the importance of breathing, sitting still and really being present when eating a meal. A study from the University of California showed that obese women who began a mindfulness programme and stuck with it for four months, lost fat around their tummies and no doubt they suffered less from stress.
3. Don’t hit the bottle. We all know that a long, stressful day can be lifted away by a stiff drink but large doses of alcohol leads to excess cortisol as well as fat storage from the sugars.
4. Move your body wisely. Just like the ways recommended in this series. Study after study shows exercise can help to alleviate and avoid stress. But you don’t have to suddenly run half a marathon – maybe your body isn’t up to that level of intensity just yet if stress is regular presence in your life. Be smart with your exercise.
5. Sleep well. A good night’s sleep should last a good eight hours and will help you cope properly with whatever life throws at you. It also helps produce the hormone leptin, which tells us to put our fork down. So take sleep action! Eat a couple of hours before you go to bed (a full or empty stomach will disrupt sleep quality), avoid computers and phones for a few hours before sleep, and relax with a warm Epsom Salt bath before bed.
6. Think positive…I love the phrase from Eat, Pray, Love: 'worrying is praying for what you don't want'. Or what you think about, you bring about. Try to turn your thoughts into positive ones and this includes making positive affirmations about your body. None of us is perfect but oh my can we talk badly to ourselves, especially about our bodies. This week try looking at yourself in a mirror every day and say something positive and loving to yourself about yourself - this floods your body with oxytocin, the 'love hormone' and it will counteract all that cortisol.