How to Naturally Release Stress-Induced Weight Gain

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If you want to release extra weight—especially during these uncertain times—basic self-care practices are key.

Mindset is where you need to start.  When you come from a place of anxiety, anger, fear, resentment or unrealistic expectations, your body will perceive these thoughts and emotions as “stress”, making it very difficult to release weight.

Reduce anxiety.

1.  Limit your exposure to the news.

A 24/7 news cycle literally assaults viewers with a barrage of negativity. Clicking on the latest headlines only fuels anxiety, fear and overwhelm. Humans naturally have a negativity bias; meaning, the human brain is wired to detect threats, so it will pay attention to negative or scary information that may potentially help avoid a harmful situation.14 Regardless, overconsumption of the news can take a toll on your mental and physical health. In a study published in the British Journal of Psychology, researchers found that participants who were only exposed to negative television news bulletins experienced greater levels of anxiety and sadness; this translated to these same participants experiencing a significant increase in worrisome thoughts about their own lives.15 Avoid reading or watching the news before bedtime.

2.  Make friends with uncertainty.

This is a hard one, especially when so much is uncertain in the world right now. And change is the only constant. So, rather than try to resist or deny the reality of your circumstances—for example, waiting for life to return to pre-COVID “normal”—accept what is happening at the moment (while acknowledging your feelings about what is happening). This enables you to move forward, based on realistic expectations.

3.  Shift your perception of “stress”.

Your body does not know the difference between a perceived threat (for example, feeling stressed because you are running late for an appointment) and an actual threat (running for your life from a saber-toothed tiger); in both cases, the stress response is activated to respond to an “Emergency!”. Remember: it is the level of perceived threat that triggers the intensity of a stress response.

Shifting your perception of “stress” means being mindful of your thoughts. Avoid automatically imagining a “worst case” scenario. This can flood your body with stress hormones. Though we have become accustomed to instant, one-click gratification, it is important to remember: nothing is an emergency—unless it is an actual emergency (e.g., injury or accident requiring immediate attention). Feeling inconvenienced is NOT an emergency. Given the current restrictions we are enduring, take one day at a time; observe your thought patterns, catching yourself when you veer into an abyss of negativity; and be present in the moment, dealing with what you must as it arises.

Manage your weight loss expectations

4.  Be open to taking a holistic mind-body approach to weight loss.

Losing weight is not just about having enough willpower to “eat less and exercise more”, the advice dispensed by doctors and other health experts for decades. Popular weight loss programs promise that you can “eat your favorite foods”—while you count calories, count points or control portion size. Bottom line: when it comes to keeping weight off long-term, the “eat less, exercise more” approach has a 95% failure rate.16

Many factors can prevent you from losing weight in a healthy, sustainable fashion: blood sugar imbalances; nutrient deficiencies; hormone imbalances; too little or poor quality sleep; food intolerances; medications, including birth control pills and anti-depressants; undereating (that’s right, eating too few calories!); poor quality food; eating inflammatory foods; poor gut health; exposure to everyday toxins; toxic relationships; emotional trauma; and more. Some of those reasons are explored in-depth here:  7 Reasons Why You’re NOT Losing Weight.

5.  Understand that weight loss is not—and never will be—a predictable or linear process.

When you start making healthier food and lifestyle choices, you may not lose weight, but you may lose inches (this is a good thing because you are losing fat). There may be weeks when you effortlessly release weight. And weeks when you don’t lose any weight at all—this is okay. Your body’s ability to release weight will depend on your overall health status, hormone balance and how you are managing lifestyle stressors.

Rapid weight loss is not better. People who lose a lot of weight quickly tend to regain the weight they lost—and more—just as quickly. On the other hand, people who lose weight slowly (1/4 to 1-2 pounds a week) tend to successfully keep it off long-term.17

6. Avoid an “all or nothing” mindset to weight loss.

This is for all of you perfectionists (I speak from experience as a recovering perfectionist!)! Body change is a process. The idea that once you cheat on your healthy eating plan, it’s only downhill from this point, so you may as well cheat all the way…is an example of “all or nothing” self-sabotage. Achieving healthy weight loss is not about whether you have iron-clad willpower to avoid “bad foods. It is not about whether you eat “perfectly” (or not). It is about committing to making healthy choices consistently—every day. Yes, life happens: there will be weddings, birthdays and vacations. Can you indulge on these occasions? You get to choose. If you choose “yes”, simply listen to your body: it will ultimately let you know if eating a slice of cake or having 3 glasses of wine feels good. If you overindulge or give into a food craving—and it did not feel good; acknowledge how it made you feel and commit to making a healthier choice at your next meal (not tomorrow, next week, or next year!).

7.  Treat your body with loving kindness: your thoughts matter.

How many times have you looked at your body in the mirror and thought: “I’m so fat!”, or “I hate my [INSERT BODY PART], or “I’m never going to lose weight, and no one will ever be attracted to me!”  And down the rabbit hole. Negative self-talk is a recipe for self-sabotage. You lose motivation. You feel more anxious and depressed. You figuratively handicap yourself before you’re even out the starting gate!

Your mind and body are not separate. Your body “hears” stressful thoughts and responds by releasing cortisol, the stress hormone, which promotes weight gain and belly fat. Now, what you believe becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The quality of your thoughts matter. Notice when you are being self-critical. When you catch yourself, try to stop that negative thought—for example, “I can’t do this!” by replacing it with encouraging or positive self-talk that is also accurate. For example, “This is a challenging workout, but I’ll get better at this over time.”

Practice basic self-care

8. Make sleep a priority: aim for 8 hours

Chronic sleep deprivation damages your metabolism. Too little sleep or poor quality sleep increases hunger and cravings, especially for carbohydrates and stimulants, like sugar and caffeine. Sleep loss tanks your mood and robs you of energy, focus and motivation. Poor sleep is also associated with increased risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.18

One study among healthy men and women found that even one night of partial sleep deprivation(in this case, subjects slept 4 hours for one night) could induce insulin resistance.19  When you have insulin resistance, your body is unable to use insulin properly. As a result, your blood sugar is chronically high. Your pancreas pumps out more insulin to bring down your blood sugar; but more insulin slows fat-burning and increases fat storage, resulting in weight gain.  Click here to learn how you can fight “sleep robbers”.

9.  Watch your intake of sugar and starches.

The sugar we consume every day is both obvious and hidden. Sugar is a main ingredient in candy, cookies, baked goods, refined carbohydrates (e.g., cereal, pizza, snack foods) and in commercial beverages (e.g., soda, juices, cocktails, sports drinks, that pumpkin latte and more). Added sugars hide in processed foods and fast foods, from bottled salad dressings to condiments. Starches, like bread / bagels, pasta, potatoes, rice and other grains, also convert to sugar in the body. Regularly consuming high-sugar food and drink spikes blood sugar, suppresses your immune system and creates inflammation, setting the stage for insulin resistance; Type 2 diabetes; overweight / obesity; mood disorders, like depression and anxiety; and  cognitive dysfunction (e.g., brain fog). Being mindful of reducing sugar consumption and eating more whole foods (see #10 below) is key to weight management and improving overall health.

10. Eat whole, unprocessed food!

You’ll find whole, unprocessed foods—vegetables, fruits, herbs, fish and meats—around the perimeter of a grocery store. Where you won’t find whole foods: in boxes, bags, cans or housed in high-tech packaging. Eating whole foods body provides your body with nutrients it recognizes, satiate hunger, tames sugar cravings, stabilizes blood sugar, balances hormones and reduces inflammation—all necessary for achieving healthy, sustainable weight loss. Learn more about The Benefits of Eating Whole Foods.

It’s a different way of thinking about food…for example, instead of potato chips, have a baked potato sprinkled with sea salt. Swap out whole wheat pasta for vegetable noodles, like zoodles (zucchini noodles) or beet noodles. Replace white rice with cauliflower rice. And so on.

11. Cook as much as possible.

By preparing and cooking your own meals, you have control over what goes into your food. You can avoid the sugar, sodium, bad fats, allergenic foods, preservatives, artificial colors and flavor enhancers that are often added to takeout, fast food and restaurant meals. Cooking more meals at home can help lower risk of overweight / obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Home cooked meals are also associated with eating more fruits and vegetables; less weight gain; lower risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes; and a higher likelihood that BMI and body fat percentage will be in the “normal” range.20, 21

12. Limit or forego caffeine and alcohol.

Yes, caffeine, our socially accepted drug of choice, can contribute to weight gain. How? The caffeine in coffee activates our stress response, prompting the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Increased levels of cortisol can prevent you from sleeping soundly (even if you think you are)—and, especially, if you are a slow metabolizer of caffeine. Cortisol also disrupts blood sugar balance; first, by spiking blood sugar; then, when it crashes, you experience greater hunger and cravings than if you had not had coffee. It can become a vicious cycle of caffeine, rising cortisol and unstable blood sugar, creating a domino effect of greater hunger and cravings, poor quality sleep, and, ultimately, weight gain.

Alcohol consumption can contribute to weight gain for a number of reasons. 1) Empty liquid calories: 2 glasses of wine with 13% alcohol content is approximately 318 calories.22; 2) Alcohol is metabolically broken down first—before anything else, including fat and sugar; 3) Alcohol causes hormone imbalances—in men, it lowers testosterone; in women, it raises estrogen levels—that slow fat burning.23; 4) Alcohol can increase appetite and lower inhibitions, resulting in poor food choices; 5) Alcohol stresses the gut and can inhibit absorption of nutrients and proper elimination; and, 6) Alcohol interferes with sleep.

13. Sit less; move more.

Going to the gym may not be an option for you right now. The good news? By committing to sitting less, you can increase your calorie-burning potential through NEAT (Non-Exercise Associated Thermogenesis) activities, otherwise known as calorie-burning movement through simple daily activities. NEAT can include standing more (versus sitting), making the bed, walking to the mailbox, vacuuming, mopping the floor, shopping, gardening, leisure walking and more.24

Whereas planned, intentional “exercise” (like doing a 30-minute to 1 hour cardio workout or participatory sports, like basketball or volleyball) accounts for only 5% (yes, FIVE PERCENT!) of your metabolism, NEAT activities account for 15-20% of your metabolism.25 Traditional, time-limited exercise, especially if vigorous and intense, can increase stress hormones (long-duration, intense exercise is a stressor to the body), hunger and cravings, causing you to overeat calories. On the other hand, by accumulating movement throughout the day—for example, walking everywhere as much as possible—you can help lower cortisol levels, which decrease hunger and cravings. Walking also helps sensitize the body to insulin (so it uses insulin more efficiently); burns calories; and relaxes and calms the body overall.

A recent study found that male and female participants who sat for most of the day (apx. 13 hours) and engaged in low physical activity (less than 4,000 steps / day) did not experience any metabolic benefits of doing a 1 hour treadmill workout.26 Their triglycerides, blood sugar and insulin levels did not improve, even with 1 hour of exercise.

Bottom line: Prolonged sitting (with little physical movement) can cancel any benefits you would otherwise receive from intentional exercise.

14. Invest in your health.

We all have blind spots when it comes to our health. Even if we think that we are “doing everything right”, we’re too close to ourselves to be truly objective. In my own health journey, I have invested (paying out-of-pocket) in various wellness practitioners, including a health coach and therapist. With support and guidance, I was able to explore the physical and emotional blocks that were contributing to my symptoms—I have Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune thyroid disease. If you have been “stuck”, having this kind of support can help move you closer to your health goal.
To this end, if you feel stuck in reaching your health goals (which may include weight loss) I invite you to invest in your health with a special, one-time video service where you get the insight you need to make better food and lifestyle choices. Click here:  ON SALE NOW (50% OFF!): Optimize Your Wellness!

Continue Reading About Stress and Immune Health and the Stress Response and Weight Gain (see below):

Stress, COVID-19 and Weight Gain  (Part 1)
Understanding the Stress Response and Weight Gain  (Part 2)

Hi, I’m Kathryn Matthews. As a Board Certified Functional Health Coach, I help clients reclaim their energy, vitality and well-being. I want you to feel empowered about taking charge of YOUR health! To learn more, see About Kathryn.

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