How to stress-proof your diet

February 26, 2012

Food, Nutrition and Diet, Stress

One study found that lab mice fed diets high in fat and sugar gained significant amounts of body fat when placed under stressful conditions.

by Christina Jordan — 

For years, people have suspected that stress and obesity were linked — and now scientific research has found evidence to support this connection. As doctors better understand these reasons, they may be able to address the obesity epidemic facing the country. What you eat can affect your mood and metabolism.

We turned to Dr. Suzanne Bentz, a weight-loss doctor, for help to better understand which foods you should eat to boost your energy and battle the negative effects of stress.

“The most dangerous aspect of the link between stress and obesity is that it tends to be self-reinforcing,” notes Bentz. “Very often, when people are over-stressed they may eat improperly. If bad eating causes them to gain weight, then that can cause even more stress. In the end, you wind up causing exactly what you are trying to avoid altogether.”

Stress and obesity: The biological connection

Ever notice that when you are exceedingly stressed, you tend to crave comfort foods that are high in fat, carbohydrates or sugar? Medical researchers have found that specific hormones may play a key role in this process.

Serotonin — When we reach for fattening comfort foods during stressful times, it may be an attempt to self-medicate. Carbohydrates raise serotonin levels, which are the body’s feel-good chemical or mood elevator. Not surprisingly, people under high stress tend not to make healthy food choices. Very often these comfort foods are laden with sugar and fat, like muffins, pastries, doughnuts and cookies.

Cortisol — Researchers have discovered that chronic stress can cause the body to release excess cortisol, a hormone critical in managing fat storage and energy used by the human body. Cortisol is known to increase appetite and may encourage cravings for sugary or fatty foods.

Neuropeptide Y — Recent studies suggest that our bodies may process food differently when we are under high stress. One study found that lab mice fed diets high in fat and sugar gained significant amounts of body fat when placed under stressful conditions. Mice fed normal diets, however, did not gain as much weight, despite the added stressors. Researchers linked that phenomenon to a molecule called neuropeptide Y, which is released from nerve cells during stress and encourages fat accumulation. Diets high in fat and sugar appear to further promote the release of neuropeptide Y.

By making a few simple adjustments to your diet, you can

elevate your mood and boost your metabolism. The benefits are huge: Maintaining a good mood will help you stick to a healthy diet, be more productive and increase your self-esteem during stressful times. Metabolism is the process by which your body breaks down food. Ensuring that your metabolism is working most effectively will help you feel your best and energized enough to get the most out of life.

Here are some simple tips to help you optimize your diet to boost mood and metabolism.

1. Resist skipping meals — Skipping or missing a meal can cause a dip in your blood sugar, leading to moodiness and lethargy. You may also be more likely to reach for quick, unhealthy snacks when this occurs. Maintain your blood sugar levels and your energy by eating small amounts of food throughout the day. You might even prefer eating six smaller meals rather than three large ones.

2. Stay hydrated — Dehydration can make you feel sluggish and lethargic, both mentally and physically. Be sure to drink enough water, and do not rely on thirst alone to remind you to drink more of it. The average person needs about eight to 10 glasses of water daily, and that may be hard to achieve without reminders. Consider setting your cell phone alarm to alert you a few times throughout the day.

3. Think moderation — Avoid large amounts of caffeine, refined carbohydrates (sugar), alcohol, salt and other food additives. Any of these, especially in large amounts, can decrease your metabolic efficiency and cause energy surges and crashes throughout the day, as well as crankiness and fatigue. Excess salt can disrupt fluid balance, not to mention increase your risks for diseases like high blood pressure.

4. Strive for balance in your food — Properly combine protein, carbohydrates and fat to achieve a balanced energy intake. In general, a healthy diet includes a mix of fruits and vegetables, protein and some whole grains, but each person has individual needs based on age, sex, physical activity level, body size and stress factors. To find out the best foods for you, consult a weight-loss doctor who can help determine the right balance for your body type.

5. Get a big boost from “good mood” food — While research about the mood and metabolism-boosting qualities of certain foods is mixed, those high in the amino acid tryptophan can increase serotonin levels in the brain, contributing to feelings of optimism and calm. Try adding bananas, avocados, walnuts, sunflower or pumpkin seeds for extra tryptophan.

Polyunsaturated omega-3 fats help elevate mood and reduce anxiety and depression. Look for omega-3-rich fish, like salmon and mackerel. Also, swap out the high-calorie or high-fat snacks in your diet for healthier alternatives. Fresh fruits, low-fat string cheese, low-fat cottage cheese and green vegetables are some good options. Create snacks that combine carbohydrates and proteins, like a slice of string cheese with apple slices, as they will make you feel full longer and provide nutrients that will help you feel good, overall.

6. Keep a food diary — Some foods have the opposite effect of tryptophan and can instead trigger negative changes in mood and cause irritability or headaches. If you think a particular food might be affecting your mood, start a diary. Record all the foods you eat each day and how you feel before and after every meal. After two weeks, review your entries to see if any foods line up with specific moods, either good or bad. You can then eliminate or limit those foods that cause negative side effects.

7. Manage your stress — Dealing with stress may be easier said than done, but finding ways to manage it is essential to your overall health and weight-loss goals. Try yoga, tai chi, daily walks or meditation, and exercise regularly. Spend time with friends and do things that bring laughter and fun. Seek counseling. Do whatever is needed to reduce the number of stressors in your life.

8. Ask for help — If you find yourself reaching for high-fat, sugary snacks when you are feeling stressed, know that you are not alone. Millions suffer from stress-induced eating. Fortunately though, you can break this cycle. If finding ways to minimize stress in your life and focusing on making better food choices is not enough, you can always turn to a weight-loss doctor to help you along the way. Stress may be a part of life, but at the very least, it does not have to lead to weight gain.

 

Christina Jordan is the assistant director of marketing and public relations for Red Mountain MedSpa with locations in Mesa, Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz. www.redmountainmedspa.com, 480-991-4159 or cjordan@redmountainmedspa.com.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 29, Number 4, Aug/Sept 2010.

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