The connection between stress and poor diet

By author photo Jenny Craig Team

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Improve your mental health to drive weight loss

Stress is a natural response to challenging, unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. When we feel stressed in short bursts it can be beneficial: stress helps us meet a deadline or give an outstanding performance. However, if you experience stress for long periods, it can have all sorts of negative effects on the body.

Stress can be caused by both large and small events in one’s life, and you don’t always have the ability to control those events. But, you do have some measure of control over how you respond to stress. If you practice healthy eating and lifestyle habits, stress is likely to have less of a negative effect on your health and on your weight-loss journey. Healthy, sustainable weight loss and stress don’t exactly go hand-in-hand.

In this article, we’re looking at the connection between stress and poor diet, and how you can improve your mental health and, ultimately, drive your weight-loss and healthy eating goals.


The role of hormones

A major factor in stress-related weight gain is the hormones that are released when we feel stressed, or through actions that occur due to stress.

When you’re stressed, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, and glucose is released into your bloodstream. This is a natural ‘fight or flight’ response, your body’s way of giving you the energy required to escape from a threat, such as running from a lion. But, you’re probably not stressed because of an encounter with a lion, and don’t necessarily need an extra burst of energy whenever you feel stressed.

Whatever causes the adrenaline-cortisol-glucose rush, your body feels like those sugar stores need to be replaced, and you’re likely to get a sugar craving (whether you recognise it or not). Whatever excess sugar you don’t need is stored as fat, especially abdominal fat that is hard to shift.

Our issues with cortisol don’t end here, though. High levels of cortisol can affect your metabolism and the way your body stores fat, leading to increased fat storage around your abdomen.. Cortisol is also released when you sleep poorly, and stress and bad sleep often go hand-in-hand.


The importance of regular, healthy meals

If your stress is related to extreme busyness or disruptions to normal daily schedules then you might be skipping meals because you simply overlook them, or you don’t think you have time. Alternatively, your stress might have caused a loss or an increase in appetite, which throws off your normal mealtime schedule.

Either way, missing regular meals is unhealthy. As well as the lost nutrients that your body needs to stay strong and keep the immune system primed, hunger may catch up with you and lead you to reach for whatever snacks are on hand, at whatever time of day. If weight loss is your goal, it’s important to stick to a healthy eating plan that includes regular, portion-controlled meals.

What’s more, you can feel mentally and physically hyperstimulated when you’re stressed. This can affect how your body processes and absorbs nutrients. So, even if you do try to eat nutrient-rich food when you’re stressed, your body may digest, absorb and metabolise it more sluggishly, leading to stomach upsets, constipation or diarrhoea.

If you’re feeling stressed you may also be irritable, angry or sad. To improve mood while also improving your diet, avoid sugary and processed foods that can lead to a sugar crash. Stick to whole foods and fibre-rich vegetables and fruit that keep you feeling fuller for longer. Other foods that can help elevate energy levels and mood include:

  • Leafy greens that contain folate.
  • Whole grains containing complex carbohydrates, which boost the chemical serotonin, nicknamed the ‘happy chemical’ .
  • Salmon, tuna, which contain stress-reducing omega-3 fatty acids.

Get a good night’s sleep

You’ve heard how important it is to get a good night’s sleep, but this may be easier said than done when you have deadlines to meet, commitments to juggle or have anxious thoughts racing through your mind.

Stress can make you feel more sleepy or can keep you awake, even when you feel tired. When you do fall asleep, it can affect your sleep quality, which means you may wake up from eight hours in bed and still feel like you need more. As already mentioned, sleep disruption can affect the body’s production of cortisol, a hormone linked to your metabolism.

Take a relaxing bath before bedtime, put on some calming music, do some gentle exercise like yoga, burn soothing essential oils in your sleep space, invest in a new pillow… whatever it takes, do what you can to get a good (or at least, better) night’s sleep. Just don’t stress about your poor sleep caused by stress… that’s a vicious circle you don’t need to be on!


Exercise regularly

Depending on your reason for feeling stressed, it may lead to disruptions in your exercise routine or cause you to lack motivation to exercise in the first place. You may feel you don’t have time to go to the gym because of your high-stress job or family schedule that’s full-to-bursting.

But, regular exercise, as well as helping your body, can have a positive cyclical effect. Exercising releases endorphins, a chemical that makes you feel good, thus relieving some of the effects of stress. And when you’re less stressed, your weight-loss goals are more visibly within reach.

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