The stress eating equation

For many of us, stressful times means picking up the packet of chocolate biscuits instead of the kale salad. Dr Libby Weaver breaks down the ‘why’ for us and provides us with some effective strategies for eliminating stress.


Many people believe weight is all about calories in versus calories out, why do you think it is so much for complex than that?

The calorie equation, which was first published in 1918, and on which today’s dieting mentality is still based, fails to factor in crucial elements of the modern world.

For example, it does not consider the metabolic consequences of modern day food.

It continues under the false belief that all that matters to body shape and size is your fat, protein and carbohydrate (and alcohol) intake: the macronutrients from where you obtain your calories.

Yet there are nine factors that influence whether the body gets the message to store fat or burn it.

For example, when your fight or flight response is activated – done by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – your body gets the message that your life is in danger.

To supply you with fuel to escape from the danger, you need one that is fast-burning.

The only two fuels for the body are glucose (sugar) and fat so the body will preferentially utilise more glucose than fat in this situation.

As a result, too many people have lost the ability to efficiently burn fat as a fuel due to stress, so they store more fat and crave sugar to top up what they are burning.

Yet the stress we face these days is primarily psychological rather than a physical threat to our life so the SNS is constantly and relentlessly activated for many people these days.

Another example involves our gut bacteria.

Research published from 2008 onwards has shown that the types of bacteria you have inhabiting your colon can influence what calories are worth – yet another example of how a calorie isn’t always a calorie.

There’s far more to it as most women who have tried a calorie-restricted diet from about age 35 onwards will attest and all of this is a major focus of my work.

How does stress make you put on weight?

Stress—whether real or perceived—communicates to the body that it is in danger and triggers the production of stress hormones.

It’s just how we are biochemically wired.

When that stress becomes ongoing and persistent, our long-term stress hormone, cortisol, begins to rise.

Because this hormone is linked to times historically where food was scarce (think of long-term stress sources in the past such as war, drought or famines), it signals to the body to start storing body fat as this can be used as energy.

To do this, it has a catabolic effect, meaning it breaks your muscles down so you’re your metabolic rate is slower, giving your more of a chance to still be alive when the food supply is restored.

However, for most people in our modern world, food isn’t scarce so all of a sudden we’re getting the message to store more body fat and it often influences us to make different food choices as well.

How does that stress influence whether we pick up a bag of chips or a kale salad?

There are two aspects to this—one is biochemical and the other is emotional.

Biochemically, as I just mentioned, the stress hormone cortisol, communicates to the body that it needs to start storing body fat in case food becomes scarce.

The quickest and easiest energy source for us is glucose (sugar) and so when our cortisol levels are raised, not only will we be more likely to store instead of burn body fat, we’ll also be more drawn to carbohydrate-rich foods which are broken down into glucose in the body.

Emotionally, when we are stressed we tend to feel less motivated and lack energy.

This in itself can lead us to make different food choices.

Throw into the mix that many people use food to TRY to make themselves feel better or numb out to what might be uncomfortable feelings (even though you may not recognise that this is what you are doing at the time), and you’ve got another scenario in which you’re more likely to opt for potato chips over kale salad.

What are some of the best foods that we should be reaching for during particularly stressful times to support our overall wellbeing?

When we experience stress, our need for nutrients increases because now, on top of all the other important biochemical processes that happen within us all day every day, we also have to build stress hormones as well.

Our body requires specific nutrients in order to build these stress hormones—many of which are needed for other vital biochemical processes – things like B vitamins, vitamin C and magnesium.

Yet stress hormones are considered the priority so the nutrients will go to their creation before anything else.

This is one mechanism through which stress can begin to take a toll on our health and we may begin to experience symptoms in our body that we don’t initially connect to extended stress.

So what we really need to focus on during times like these is increasing our intake of whole, real food—especially plenty of vegetables.

What are some of the most effective strategies for eliminating stress?

It’s very difficult to reduce your experience of stress without exploring your perception of pressure and urgency as well as any beliefs you have that might be creating perceptions of stress.

Restorative practices such as diaphragmatic breathing, restorative yoga, tai chi, meditation or qi gong are wonderful balms to a stressed nervous system, however, we need to get to the heart of what is causing our stress in order to transform it.

Most often it is our mind.

To examine what’s truly at the heart of our stress, instead of scrutinising WHAT stresses us out, we need to examine HOW we actually think.

This is a concept I dive into deeply in my book, The Invisible Load.

For example, when a colleague phones you and asks where some work is as she needed it yesterday, we often don’t really hear what the person has said – instead we hear what we think they meant.

Behind their request for work, we’ll perceive that they think we are lazy, or inefficient, or not a hard worker – in other words we perceive that they now see us in an unfavourable way.

So the stress comes from worrying about what they think of us. Yet we dreamed that bit up. All they did was ask for work and we created their “disapproval” of us with our thinking. That’s the type of “stress” we can change. That’s the part I’m interested in.


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