While we can’t eliminate every major source of stress in our lives, we can control – to some extent – its effect on our bodies. Scientists have found that there are ways to relieve stress and retrain your brain to improve your diet and prevent stress-induced weight gain.
How does stress increase belly fat?
Our bodies have evolved to release the stress hormone cortisol when our brain senses danger. Cortisol raises heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. In the short term, cortisol protects you from immediate threats by sending your body into a fight-or-flight mode. But when your job, finances, and other circumstances regularly increase your stress levels, it can lead to a chronic rise in cortisol.
One side effect of cortisol is that it boosts body fat, especially abdominal and visceral fat, which is a toxic type of fat that surrounds internal organs. Studies show that people with higher levels of cortisol tend to have a higher BMI.
If you’re constantly struggling with stress, it can send signals to your body to accumulate fat, said Janet Tomiyama, chief of the Diet, Stress, and Health Lab at UCLA.
Said Tomiyama, who studied the mechanisms behind stress and obesity.
Why a stressed brain makes you eat more
in laboratory studiesScientists have found that giving people synthetic versions of cortisol causes them to eat significantly more calories than people taking a placebo. This is partly because cortisol reduces the brain’s sensitivity to leptin, also known as the satiety hormone, which regulates your appetite and makes you feel full.
in one Store Workers Studypeople ate more sugar, saturated fat, and total calories when they had to work long periods that required shifts than when they worked less stressful shifts with lighter workloads.
Even stress from the activities we enjoy can lead to overeating. In one study, researchers followed ardent soccer fans in different cities. They found that fans whose teams lost in the NFL on Sunday consumed more calories and saturated fat the next day. Fans whose teams won ate less food and saturated fat the next day. Scientists found similar results when they looked at the dietary patterns of French football fans.
Chocolate, candy, ice cream, and other comfort foods relieve stress in part through their effect on the brain. are active Bonus areas Like the nucleus accumbens, it is flooded with dopamine, the pleasure-promoting hormone, and other neurotransmitters.
Some people find that their appetite decreases in stressful situations. Scientists aren’t quite sure why stress drives some people to jar cookies and no otherBut weight seems to play a role. Some studies indicate this Insulin resistancea precursor to type 2 diabetes, which is more common in people with obesity, may lead to changes in brain activity that increase food cravings in response to stress.
How to Retrain Your Brain to Combat Stress Eating
While you can’t always reduce stress in your life, you can retrain your brain to want better foods when you’re stressed out.
in A study published last yearTomyama and colleagues recruited 100 adults with elevated stress levels and divided them into two groups. Everyone is trained to do a daily six-minute stress-reducing exercise called progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tightening and relaxing your muscles from the toes to the head. you can find An example here. It was this deep relaxation technique It appears in studies To reduce stress and anxiety.
But members of one group were assigned to eat a serving of fresh fruit such as pineapple slices, peach and pear, about five minutes after each of their daily progressive muscle relaxation sessions. One week after that, the researchers found that eating only the fruit on its own made participants feel less stressed and put them in a better mood. By pairing the fruit with a relaxation exercise, their brains began to perceive the fruit as something that reduces their stress levels — essentially turning fruit into a comfort food.
“Any time two things happen at the same time your brain establishes a connection between them,” Tomiyama said. “By combining relaxation and fruit together, your brain begins to see them as the same thing. After a while, you don’t even need to do six minutes of relaxation: all you have to do is eat the fruit, and you’ll get the same relaxation benefit.”
Tomiyama provided some tips for those who want to give it a try.
- Choose a type of fruit that you don’t eat often, such as star fruit, kiwi, or mango. If fresh versions of this fruit are too expensive or uncomfortable, use frozen fruit.
- Try this exercise at different times of the day and in different locations in your home or office. If you always do it on your kitchen table, it will only work on your kitchen table.
- For times when you feel stressed or anxious, look for “comfort fruit” instead of a bag of chips.
“This is a way to kick comfort eating habits for good,” Tomiyama said.
Do you have a question about healthy eating? E-mail EatingLab@washpost.com We may answer your question in a future column.
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