Is stress making you fat?

Stress is a part of our everyday life.  A small or occasional stressful event – a car that won’t start, an overdrawn bank account, or a refrigerator on the blink – can actually rev us up a bit and help us to focus and tackle the problem.

But when stress becomes chronic – when we face, for instance, unrelenting work demands or constantly worry about our finances - it can take a toll on the body. 

The body’s natural response to stress causes physiological changes to take place as the body naturally attempts to bring things back into balance.

Humans evolved this ‘fight or flight response’ defence mechanism to help them face sudden danger or threat. 

But when the response is turned on all the time – when stress becomes chronic - it can tax the body’s immune system, making it more difficult for us to ward off disease. 

Since a healthy immune system depends on a nutrient-rich diet, being well-nourished is one of the best defences against illness, particularly during times of ongoing stress.

At the same time, stress can lead to fatigue and depression. And when that happens, healthy eating habits often fall by the wayside. 

It becomes easier to eat what is quick, or comforting.  But fast foods and comfort foods are often laden with fat, salt and sugar – hardly the best nutrients to support a healthy body.  And turning to caffeine to ward off fatigue can backfire, too, interfering with restful sleep. 

Those high calorie comfort foods stimulate the release of certain chemicals in the brain that make us feel good – and make us want to keep eating.  But in a vicious cycle, overeating leads to weight gain - which increases psychological stress that, in turn, leads to more overeating. 

In addition, excess weight causes physical stress on the body – leading to more weight gain around the waistline thereby increasing health risks.  

If you are well-nourished, your body will be much better equipped to combat stress.  While you might not be able to make the stress go away, there are things you can do to help you manage the way in which you respond to it such as:

•    Eat balanced meals.  Try to include some lean protein – like poultry, egg whites, low-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, or soy products – with each meal.  Protein satisfies hunger and also helps keep you mentally alert. Complete your meal with fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

•    Eat regularly and don’t skip meals.
  When you’re stressed it’s easy to put meals off - or even skip them altogether – but energy levels will suffer as a result. If stress is an appetite-killer, try eating smaller amounts of food more often during the day.

•    Try to avoid using food as a stress reducer.
A brisk walk or a cup of herbal tea might work instead. If you feel the need to eat, hard crunchy foods help relieve stress by putting tight jaw muscles to work. Try snacking on a handful of almonds, soy nuts or baby carrots.

•    Cut back on caffeine.
People often feel a lack of energy when they’re stressed and turn to caffeine as a pick me up, but it might prevent sound sleep at night. If caffeine keeps you awake at night, drink decaffeinated coffees and teas.

•    Make meal times pleasant. 
Keep meals separate from work or other sources of stress – don’t eat at your desk, or pay bills while you eat dinner. Take a little extra time to slow down and relax while you eat – you’re likely to eat less and enjoy it more.

Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE:HLF) is a global nutrition company that sells weight-management, nutrition, and personal care products intended to support a healthy lifestyle.

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