Tax season is stressful for everyone. It takes a particularly physical toll on those who prepare taxes, whether business owners or accountants. I want especially to talk today to people in fields impacted by tax season. Because if that's you, you're under a lot of stress right now. And that stress is both draining you physically and potentially increasing your weight. Let's talk about what you can do about it.
In my practice I have had a great deal of opportunity to observe professionals navigating tax season, and I see a pattern: Stress levels are high, and people make this worse by not taking care of themselves. When I've interviewed clients, they've told me this is the time of year when they gain weight. They're not packing their own lunches, they're eating out a lot, they're putting in long hours, they order in food because they feel they need every second of the day for work, they snack because they're stressed. So they build up fat around their waistline and end tax season in a bad state -- physically, if not financially.
The relationship between stress and weight gain is a complex one. Part of this relationship involves the interruption of your usual healthy eating patterns when you throw your routines aside in response to a crisis situation -- like tax season. Part of it is also physiological. Stress produces hormones, appropriately called stress hormones, of which the best-known is cortisol. Stress hormones were evolutionarily designed to give us the stuff to run away from a physical threat, like a lion. Nowadays our stresses are less physical; it's hard to run away from your email. Stress hormones evolved to dissipate when we move -- i.e., run from the lion -- but since we sit at our desk instead, they remain in our system. These hormones bring sugar into circulation from our cells in order to power a sudden flight that we don't make. Instead, the sugar winds up in your liver and is stored as fat around your waistline. Not only that, but you're now hungry, because your cells have been emptied. You snack on whatever is there (you're at the office, after all), and lo and behold, you gain weight by April 15 when you can finally leave your desk and make a run for it.
I understand that there's nothing you can do to change the fact that this time of year is stressful. So what can you do to manage your body's response? A lot, actually. And it's all pretty simple. But it will involve you stepping away from your desk just long enough to go to the grocery store. Here's what I recommend:
1. Move throughout the day. Heading off to the gym for an hour either before or after work is the first victim of a stressful time. And no wonder -- going to the gym is really time-consuming! Accept that you don't have much time, and address the problem by spreading out your movement throughout the day. Take a 15-minute walk in the middle of the day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Do a few push-ups or squats in your office, especially when you feel overwhelmed. If you live in a city, get off the subway a station earlier and walk the extra distance. This has the effect of dissipating those stress hormones as they are building up. You may find that this this controls your hunger enough that it offsets the greater intensity you might get from a gym workout.
2. Fuel up. Our bodies need fuel and especially when stressed, so you must start the day with a good breakfast, one that combines carbs and protein. Resist the temptation to skip meals. Between meals, fuel up periodically with healthy snacks: fruit, nuts, hard-boiled eggs. When you're stressed, and haven't eaten all day, you're that much more likely to cave in and have pizza than if you are properly nourished -- not to mention the fact that eating in small amounts during the day will give you mental clarity and keep you from getting sleepy in the way that one giant meal does.
3. Breathe. Look, I know it sounds ridiculous. But you who are stressed out, ask yourself -- when was the last time you took a deep, slow, conscious breath, and equally slowly let it back out again? A few deep breaths can break your focus on the thing that is stressing you out and bring you back into contact with the world. Deep breaths oxygenate your brain and tissues, and they help to reduce stress hormones. Schedule a few breathing breaks during the day (set an alarm on your phone if you need to), and while you're at it, pair those breaks with a short walk or a small healthy snack.
Eat well, move and breathe more, and dissipate those stress hormones. Your waistline will know the difference.
 Block, J. P. et al. (2009). "Psychosocial stress and change in weight among US adults." American Journal of Epidemiology, 170, 181‒192.
 Vicennati, V. et al. (2011). "Cortisol, energy intake, and food frequency in overweight/obese women." Nutrition, 27, 677‒680.
Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning weight loss center in San Francisco. He is the founder and creator of Eating Free, an international weight management and wellness program and author of his new book Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good!
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