When I’m stressed, my go-to foods are ones that are definitely not good for maintaining a healthy body weight.
Topping my list are chocolate covered donuts, powdered sugar donuts (okay, if I’m honest, anything in the donut category will do), and cheddar peppers — you know, those ooey-gooey fried jalapenos that come stuffed and dripping with cheese and are just perfect for dipping in ranch dressing.
So, as you can imagine, when my stress levels go up, so does my weight thanks to these comfort food indulgences.
But, I’ve noticed something weird…
When I’m under stress and over-indulge in some of those aforementioned foods, it seems I gain more weight than if I just indulge a little on regular cheat day. Weird, right?
Not really. It turns out there’s a scientific reason why that happens.
So, if you’re an occasional junk food muncher when life is on cruise control… but especially lean towards sugary, gooey high-calorie foods when stress derails you, pay close attention to the dirty trick your brain plays on you…
Your brain’s comfort food center
People have different ways of dealing with food when they are stressed. Some can’t eat a bite, while some can’t seem to get enough.
To understand what controls this ‘stress eating’, a research team, from the Eating Disorders laboratory at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research investigated different areas of the brain in mice.
They discovered that while food intake is mainly controlled by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, another part of the brain — the amygdala — comes to life when stress is part of the equation.
Dr. Kenny Chi Kin lp, lead author of the study explained, “Our study showed that when stressed over an extended period and high-calorie food was available, mice became obese more quickly than those that consumed the same high-fat food in a stress-free environment.”
But why does this happen?
Under normal conditions, your body produces insulin just after a meal, which helps your cells absorb glucose from your blood and sends a ‘stop eating’ signal to the hypothalamus feeding center of your brain.
But, when you combine chronic stress with a high-calorie diet, as seen in the mice, insulin levels skyrocket to 10 times higher than normal.
And the longer insulin remains high, the more desensitized the nerve cells in the amygdala become. This causes them to begin firing out molecules known as NPY, which not only make you want to eat more — they stop you from burning the calories you do eat.
“Our findings revealed a vicious cycle, where chronic, high insulin levels driven by stress and a high-calorie diet promoted more and more eating,” explains Professor Herzog. “This really reinforced the idea that while it’s bad to eat junk food, eating high-calorie foods under stress is a double whammy that drives obesity.” And, he continued, “This study indicates that we have to be much more conscious about what we’re eating when we’re stressed, to avoid a faster development of obesity.”
Changing your stress eating habits for the better
Looking back, this provides a lot of insight to my fluctuating weight in college. When I ate half a dozen donuts over spring break when I was feeling cool, calm and relaxed, they were less likely to stick to my hips than if I ate them during exam week while I was panicked over my GPA.
The especially scary thing about this is the link to type 2 diabetes. Insulin sensitivity is the first sign that you’re just a hop and skip away from developing this epidemic disease — if you don’t change your ways.
So, how can you keep from falling into the stress-eating/weight-gain/diabetes trap? Be mindful about your stress levels and let that be your guard against giving into junk food during those times.
For me, that has meant giving up the donuts and my beloved cheddar peppers and stocking the house with nuts, fresh fruits, crunchy vegetables and blue cheese dressing for dipping. Does that mean I’m giving up my comforting favorites for good?
It just means I save them for those days when life is easier, the sun is shining brighter and I’m less likely to pack on the pounds from my indulgence. I hope you can do the same.
Editor’s note: Being fit and healthy is not as complicated as you might think. In Dr. Cutler’s free report, you can read about 10 easy steps to a natural total health makeover based on just 7 basic fundamentals that cover ALL the bases… My favorite is #7: Indulge occasionally! For the rest, click here!
- Comfort food leads to more weight gain during stress — Garvan Institute of Medical Research