How many times have you heard someone say "it's just stress"? There's no "just" about it -- stress has been linked to depression, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, breast cancer and other diseases. And when it comes to food, eating, digestion and weight, stress is a critical factor.
A number of studies have shown that stress leads to weight gain, partly by increasing the body's cravings for sugary carbs and fatty foods. In one study, a group of college-age men and women were told that they would have to prepare a short speech that would be recorded and assessed for quality. All of the participants were so stressed by this news that their blood pressure went up and their mood declined. Then they were presented with a selection of food and told that they could eat as much as they wanted. All of the stressed-out group ate 88 percent more fatty, sugary foods than did their unstressed counterparts in a control group.
It's not just that being tense makes you crave cupcakes; stress also initiates a complex web of hormonal influences that may prompt the body to hang on to fat. And when you're stressed, your ability to digest food is also vastly compromised. It's well-known that stress greatly exacerbates digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); in one interesting small study of 12 subjects from 1989, deep relaxation was significantly more important than thorough chewing in terms of starting the digestive process.
The solution is simple: Reduce stress and eat slowly. Don't just take my word for it. A number of studies have borne this out. For example, in one study, simple mindful eating and stress-reduction techniques prevented overweight and obese women from gaining weight, without dieting. As an added bonus, the women who had the greatest reduction in stress also lowered their bodies' tendencies to hang onto deep belly fat, the kind of fat that's linked to heart disease and diabetes.
There's no magic one-size-fits-all stress reduction plan, but some general approaches work for most people:
- Try meditating. It's a surefire stress reducer; studies show that meditation combats stress, and some suggest it works by actually changing the brain. Very few of us will park our rears on a cushion and sit still for two hours at a time -- but even smaller doses work. Cultivate the habit: Start with five minutes in the morning, and gradually work up to half an hour.
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