High stress levels = bad decisions.
Choosing water over soda or the side of Brussels sprouts over French fries, seems simple when you’re relaxed and on top of your game. When deadlines pop up and chaos ensues? It’s easy to drop those little healthy habits for the sake of so-called stress relief.
Everyone defines stress a little differently, but one accepted definition is when you feel something is demanded of you that exceeds your physical and mental resources. This results in heightened cortisol levels and a “fight or flight” response, according to the American Institute of Stress.
And when you feel like you can’t necessarily get the job done, you might cut corners in other ways. That comes at a cost, and that cost is often to your health. Here are the common mistakes people make under stress that leads to weight gain.
1. You burn the midnight oil.
If you’re stressed about a work project, you might be more likely to stay late at work (or take it home with you and finish it at your dining room table). Even after you choose to close up shop for the night, anxiety about work might cause a bout of insomnia or wake you up every hour until your alarm finally rings. (Here are bedtime habits that may improve sleep and reduce stress.)
Being tired sucks, but that’s not all: Research has consistently found that people tend to eat more when they’re sleep deprived. A 2014 review of obesity risk factors found a correlation between short duration of sleep and higher body mass index (BMI); for each extra hour of sleep people got, BMI was reduced by 0.35 points.
2. You stress eat.
The phrase “comfort food” exists for a reason. Studies in both humans and rats have shown that we flock toward high-fat or high-sugar foods when under stress. Just like alcohol and other addictive substances, you may need increased amounts of the hyperpalatable foods overtime to achieve the same soothing effect, which can lead to a dependence.
And it’s not just a comfort thing: Stress spikes your cortisol hormone levels, and when your cortisol levels are regularly high, it could mess with something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. That’s a “control center” for many of your body’s processes, like appetite, menstruation, growth, and temperature regulation. (That’s why high stress can affect your period.)
When the HPA axis isn’t functioning properly, it may suppress the hormones that regulate feelings of hunger and fullness, and it may also inhibit your metabolism itself.
3. You skip your workouts.
Going to the gym already takes commitment and discipline, and—let’s be honest—you’re more likely to ditch when you’re feeling down, crunched for time, or stressed to the max.
Not surprisingly, a 2014 study from Sports Medicine found that people in chronically stressful situations, such as caregivers for people with cancer, were less likely to be active compared to the general population.
As tempting as it is to ditch your running shoes, even low-intensity exercise can help relieve stress. Here are other benefits of exercise to know about, and check out these ways to stay active without going to the gym.
4. You ease your mind with a cocktail.
A strong martini can definitely quiet your thoughts—but only temporarily, and with potential consequences. (Learn more about the effects of binge-drinking here.) If you’re drinking to soothe stress, consider this: Chronic stress is a well-documented risk factor for alcohol and substance addictions, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Then there’s the fact that alcohol is far from being a calorie-free drink. For example, one 12-ounce can of Budweiser is 146 calories. If you have two, that’s already almost 300 calories; three adds up to almost 450 calories. (See how quickly that adds up?)
Like soda, most alcoholic drinks are essentially empty calories, and booze also tends to increase your appetite (hello, 1 AM slice of pizza).
5. You eat on the go or while multitasking.
Eating while multitasking usually results in mindless noshing. Ever eat at your desk, look down at your empty plate, and think, “I don’t even remember eating that”?
Focusing on the flavors and sensations of your food can help you slow down, appreciate your meal, and feel more satisfied overall. Eating food mindfully is linked to lower calorie intake, likely because you become more aware of when you are full and when to put down your fork.
6. You skip meals altogether.
It’s counterintuitive, but skipping lunch probably won’t save you any calories. One interesting study from Nutrition Research and Practice found that participants who regularly skipped meals actually had higher prevalence of obesity than participants who consistently ate three meals a day.
And you know you’re less likely to choose good-quality food when you’re famished. The same study presented the participants with a buffet of food options, and researchers found that those who had skipped a meal beforehand were less likely to choose fruits, vegetables, and other healthy options, and were more likely to choose soft drinks and salty, processed foods (compared to participants who had eaten regular meals before the study).
7. You use TV as your main de-stressor.
While TV, movies, social media, and cat videos can provide some stress relief and are a great way to relax, overdoing it can have negative effects on your physical and mental health. Lounging in front of Netflix for several hours can contribute to the phenomenon of “sitting disease,” which increases your risk of chronic diseases, including obesity.
Moral of the story? Stress management is weight management. In fact, maintaining a healthy weight might even prevent stress, since it lowers your risk of stressful conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Alcoholic beverage, beer, regular, BUDWEISER. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on November 13, 2021 at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/14004.)
Institute of Medicine (US) Subcommittee on Military Weight Management. Weight management: state of the science and opportunities for military programs. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004. Chapter 3: Factors that influence body weight.
Kim HY, Lee NR, Lee JS, Choi YS, Kwak TK, Chung HR, et al. Meal skipping relates to food choice, understanding of nutrition labeling, and prevalence of obesity in Korean fifth grade children. Nutr Res Pract. 2012 Aug;6(4):328-33.
Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Sinha R. The effects of stress on physical activity and exercise. Sports Med. 2014 Jan;44(1):81-121.
The link between stress and alcohol. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (Accessed on November 13, 2021 at https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA85/AA85.htm.)
What is stress? Weatherford, TX: American Institute of Stress. (Accessed on November 13, 2021 at https://www.stress.org/daily-life/.)
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