LA VIDA: Is Stress Making You Fat?

Our ancestors ate to survive. They ate because they were hungry or maybe to celebrate a victory over a warring tribe. Us? We eat because we're hungry, too, of course—but also when we're stressed, angry, bored, depressed, frustrated, busy, not busy enough, getting together with friends or ticked off that the Lions lost.

Stress may actually be the eating trigger that causes the most trouble. Many of us have high levels of chronic stress, whether it's from workload, relationship troubles or to-do lists that are longer than Route 66. Our bodies respond to this stress the way our ancestors' bodies did: triggering "fight or flight" chemicals in the brain that lead to calorie accumulation and fat storage. But the difference is that we have plenty of food at our disposal; they didn't. So we end up continually upgrading the size of our storage unit.

Here's how the cycle of fat spins out of control: When you have chronic stress, your body steps up its production of cortisol and insulin. Your appetite increases, and so do the chances you'll engage in "hedonistic" eating in the form of high-calorie sweets and fats. That, in turn, makes you store more fat, pumping even more of it as well as inflammatory chemicals into the liver. This creates a resistance to insulin, which makes your pancreas secrete more insulin to compensate. And that makes you hungrier than a muzzled wolf, continuing the cycle of eating because you're stressed. Whew!

When you try to combat stress with food, you activate the reward center of your brain. But after that initial feel-good system wears off, you'll reach again for the same thing that made you feel good, calm and relaxed in the first place: more food. With emotions like stress and anxiety, it's that much more difficult, neurochemically, to control your eating.

That's why it's a myth that overeating is triggered mainly by extreme hunger. It's a myth that cravings are dictated by our taste buds. And it's a myth that we can resist temptations if we just put our minds to it. What happens under your skull plays a vital role in what happens under your belt. Knowing how your emotions can steer your desire to eat will help you resist your cravings and, ideally, avoid them altogether.

Your goal: to keep your feel-good hormones level. That will provide a steady state of satisfaction so that you never experience those huge hormonal highs and lows that make you search for good-for-your-brain, bad-for-your-waist foods. The following tips will help.

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