Stress Series Part 1: Stress and Weight Loss

As a nutrition and health coach, most people come to me to lose weight and get healthy. Many of them exercise regularly, and after working together, their outlook on food dramatically improves, and some lose weight and feel great!  Others who make all these changes, however, have a harder time, and for the most part, the stressful way we live our lives is the answer. I live in the Bay Area, which in my opinion is the greatest place on earth.  There's a million and one things to do, amazing friends, and work opportunities to explore.  But this urban life, despite its excitement is stressful.  And not just bad stressful...  there's a good kind of stress called Eustress, which you experience when you are excited about something, and then DISstress, when sh*t hits the fan and it keeps you up at night with worry.

Stress itself is a naturally occurring psychological response. When faced with a situation that we feel inadequate, unsafe, or as though we may lose something, our bodies go into a fight or flight mode. We either face the situation up front or attempt to avoid it at all costs. Neuroscientist and author of “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”, Robert Sapolsky, explains that stress is anything in the external world that knocks ourselves out of homeostatic balance. Sapolsky points out that unlike other mammals, we turn on our stress response for things it is not scientifically designed for… emotions, memories, feelings, etc. We have an anticipatory response to stress we think we might experience, which when not managed well can become chronic and lead to a variety of additional health problems.

As a part of a series, Stress and You, we are going to focus on three major areas in which stress can negatively impact our overall health: Stress and Weight

Stress and Immunity

Stress and Mental Health

All three of these aspects of overall health are connected. When one area is affected, a snowball effect can occur and lead to trouble in others. Understanding the impact of stress on our bodies and the importance of and proper ways of managing it is key to leading a healthy lifestyle.

Stress and You Part 1: Stress and Weight

Imagine a time where you came home from a stressful day at work or after handling a stressful situation. What did you do? Did you reach for that comfort food you’ve been craving while you let yourself cool down and unwind? What about in the long run… despite your exercise and nutritional habits are you struggling to lose weight or even notice yourself gaining?

All of this… while typical, is avoidable. Unfortunately, our bodies do not differentiate amongst different stressors. Stress is stress and regardless leads to negative health issues. Pamela Peeke, MD, author of “Body of Life for Women”, says stress can actually be one of the biggest barriers of maintaining a healthy weight. When stress occurs, our bodies release hormones that can upset our chemical balance. Adrenaline is what gives you that burst of energy to either fight or flee from the situation. In response to adrenaline, our bodies’ release the hormone cortisol, which raises our blood sugar.  Which in turn sets off our insulin response, which is our fat storage hormone!  Vicious cycle, right?

A stressful day also can stop you from making good decisions.  In a simple experiment at Stanford, volunteers were either asked to remember either two numbers or 7 numbers, then offered a piece of chocolate cake or fruit salad afterwards.  Those that had to remember 7 numbers were TWICE as likely to reach for the chocolate cake!   So it makes sense right? That when you've had a long stressful day working, you are MUCH MORE LIKELY to reach for something sweet.

So how do we manage stress and its influence on our eating habits?

- Try to avoid snacking as a method of coping with stress. Despite what your body may tell you, eating will not alleviate stress. Temporarily it may sooth the feeling, but will only lead to more stress down the road. Get active. When stressed, take a walk, hit the gym, do yoga. Getting up and moving will release other hormones that will counteract the ones creating the desire to snack. Focus your mind on something other than the stressor in question. Tackle your to do list to enable that sense of accomplishment or go for a run. You hold the power- so show stress who’s boss!

- Pay attention to the foods and drinks you are consuming. Avoid stimulants that can fuel stress. We may not realize it, but there are plenty of foods and drinks that only further fuel our stress levels. Alcohol, fast food, coffee, and soda are some of the most common triggers. While we may think of some of these as “comfort” foods, they actually end up making things worse.

- If you do snack, make selections that fight stress. Believe it or not, there are wonderful super-foods that actually fight stress and can bring relief. The foods that we normally crave may serve as a temporary anesthetic , but some foods have calming chemical properties.

  • Foods high in folic acid or B vitamins such as asparagus and avocados help create serotonin, a chemical that directly impacts moods in a positive way.
  • Almonds provide a plethora of vitamins such as Vitamin C and E that are proven to fight stress while still satisfying those crunchy cravings.
  • As mentioned above, Vitamin C is a major stress fighter and can be found in blueberries, oranges, etc. Mix these nutrient rich fruits with some cottage cheese for a soothing snack.
  • Drink calming teas!  Chamomile, Rosemary, Asian Ginseng, Ashwaganda, Holy Basil (Tulsi), and Licorice Root are all part of a group of herbs call Adaptogens that help the body deal with stress.

The most important thing to look at is your LIFE!  What can you say no to?  Where are your self care boundaries?

It's time to really think about these things...because no matter what you do, even if you exercise like crazy, and you eat extremely well, too much stress will sabotage you EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  Think about it!

Written by Ashley Green and Tammy Chang for The Nourished Belly

Sources: Sapolsky, R. (1994). Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks.

Peeke, P. (2009). Body of Life for Women: A Women’s Plan for Physical and Mental Transformation. Holtzbrinck Publishers.

Whole Living. Good Mood Foods that Reduce Stress. Retrieved from