Stress eating? Here’s how to train your brain to crave healthy foods

Concerns about inflation, the economy, the ongoing impact of the pandemic and other global crises have caused stress levels to hit new highs. For some people, this stress shows up on the scales.

There are many biological mechanisms that explain why stress and anxiety can cause people to gain unwanted pounds. In some cases, the weight gain itself can become a source of stress and stigma that fuels further weight gain.

When you're stressed, grab the kiwi instead of the chips.

When you’re stressed, grab the kiwi instead of the chips. Photo: Delivered

While we can’t eliminate all of the major sources of stress in our lives, we can—to some extent—control the effects it has on our bodies. Scientists have found that there are ways to reduce stress and retrain your brain to improve your diet and prevent stress-related weight gain.

How Stress Promotes Belly Fat

Our bodies have evolved to release the stress hormone cortisol when our brain senses danger. Cortisol increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. In the short term, cortisol protects you from immediate threats by putting your body in fight-or-flight mode. But when your job, finances, and other circumstances regularly increase your stress levels, it can lead to chronic cortisol elevation.

Kefir, citrus and fruit salad with cumin, honey, ginger and lemon dressing.

Kefir, citrus and fruit salad with cumin, honey, ginger and lemon dressing. Photo: Katrina Meynink

A side effect of cortisol is that it promotes body fat, particularly abdominal and visceral fat, a particularly toxic type of fat that surrounds internal organs. Studies show that people with higher cortisol levels tend to have higher body mass index.

Dealing with stress all the time can send signals to your body to store fat, said A. Janet Tomiyama, director of the Diet, Stress, and Health Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Even if you don’t change anything in your diet, the fact that you’re stressed will encourage fat storage,” said Tomiyama, who has studied the mechanisms behind stress and obesity.

Why a Stressed Brain Makes You Eat More

In laboratory studies, scientists have found that giving synthetic versions of cortisol causes people to consume significantly more kilojoules than people receiving a placebo. That’s partly because cortisol reduces your brain’s sensitivity to leptin, also known as the satiety hormone, which regulates your appetite and makes you feel full.

In a study of department store workers, people ate more sugar, saturated fat, and total kilojoules when working long, strenuous shifts compared to less stressful shifts with lighter workloads.

Grab the strawberries when you feel your stress levels rising.

Grab the strawberries when you feel your stress levels rising. Photo: Delivered

Even stress from activities we enjoy can lead to overeating. In a US study, researchers followed enthusiastic soccer fans in different cities. They found that fans whose NFL teams lost on Sunday ate more kilojoules and saturated fat the next day. Fans whose teams won ate less food and saturated fat the next day. The scientists came to similar conclusions when they examined the eating habits of French football fans.

Chocolate, candy, ice cream, and other comfort foods relieve stress in part through their effects on the brain. They activate reward regions like the nucleus accumbens and flood them with the pleasure hormone dopamine and other neurotransmitters.

Some people find that their appetite decreases in stressful situations. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why stress drives some people to the cookie jar and not others, but weight seems to play a role. Some studies suggest that insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes more common in people who are obese, may stimulate changes in brain activity that increase food cravings in response to stress.

How to retrain your brain to fight stress eating

While you can’t always reduce the stress in your life, you can retrain your brain to want better foods when you’re under stress.

In a study published last year, Tomiyama and her colleagues recruited 100 adults with elevated levels of stress and divided them into two groups. Everyone was trained to do a six-minute daily stress-relief exercise called progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and relaxing muscles from toe to head. This deep relaxation technique has been shown in studies to reduce stress and anxiety.

But members of one group were instructed to eat a serving of fresh fruit, such as sliced ​​pineapple, honeydew and pears, about five minutes after each of their daily progressive muscle relaxation sessions.

After a week, the researchers found that eating the fruit alone made the participants less stressed and in a better mood.

By pairing the fruit with a relaxation exercise, their brains began to view the fruit as something that reduced their stress levels — essentially turning the fruit into a feel-good food.

“Whenever two things happen at the same time, your mind creates a connection between them,” Tomiyama said. “By combining relaxation and fruit together, your mind begins to see them as the same thing. After a while, you don’t even need to do the six minutes of relaxation: all you have to do is eat the fruit and you’ll get the same relaxation benefit.”

Tomiyama shared a few tips for those who want to try this.

  • Choose a type of fruit that you don’t eat often, like star fruit, kiwi, or mango. If fresh versions of these fruits are too expensive or inconvenient, use frozen fruits.
  • Try this exercise at different times of the day and in different places in your home or office. If you always do this at your kitchen table, it will only work at your kitchen table.
  • At times when you’re feeling stressed or anxious, reach for your “comfort fruit” instead of a bag of potato chips.

“This is a way to hack your comfort eating habits forever,” Tomiyama said.

Washington Post

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