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.

Make Foods Work In Your Favor Foods have different effects on your stomach, your blood and your brain. Here are some that may help your hunger and the brain chemicals that affect it. Turkey contains tryptophan, which increases serotonin, improving your mood and combating depression. It also helps you resist cravings for simple carbs. Fish and walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have long been known as brain boosters and cholesterol clearers. But they've also been shown to help with depression in pregnant women. Depression contributes to emotional overeating. And since many of us have low omega-3 intake, eating foods that contain the acids may help lift our spirits and keep us from reaching for a doughnut. Green tea contains catechins, thought to inhibit the breakdown of fats as well as the production of an inflammatory substance that can trigger hunger. One study shows that drinking three glasses of green tea a day can help you reduce body weight and waist circumference by almost five percent in three months. The tea also increases metabolism.

Sleep Yourself Skinny When your body doesn't get the seven to nine hours of sleep it needs every night to become rejuvenated, it looks for other ways to compensate for your brain not secreting the normal amounts of feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine. How does it typically do this? By craving sugary foods that will give you an immediate release of these chemicals. The lack of sleep throws off your entire system. It can become an even bigger factor as you age. When you get older, the pineal gland in your brain produces less of the sleep hormone melatonin, resulting in subsequent cravings for carbohydrates. So make sure you get enough shut-eye. It can help keep you thin.

Pick and Stick Variety may be the spice of life, but it can also lead to overeating. When you have a lot of choices for a meal, it's easier to slip out of good eating habits and into bad ones. When you sit down at a dinner and are presented with a menu that's the size of a phone book, it's easy to give in. One way to help: Eliminate the choices for at least one meal a day. Pick the meal you rush through most and automate it. For most people, it's lunch. So find a healthy lunch you really like—salad with grilled chicken and olive oil, say, or turkey on whole-grain bread—and have it every day. Yes, every day. Research shows that putting a cap on the variety of foods and tastes you experience will help you control your weight. It sounds strange, but it's true. How does it work? When you have meals rich in flavor variety, it takes more and more calories to keep you full. Think of Thanksgiving, when you eat a lot of different things, stuff yourself and still have room for pumpkin pie. When we experience meals with lots of diverse flavors (Mexican or Indian cuisines are other good examples), we tend to eat more to satisfy our taste buds. No one wants to get bored with food. But if you make this a habit for at least one meal a day, it will decrease your temptations and help you stop thinking about food so often. In fact, for our patients, we usually prescribe two meals that are the same each day. It's one of the ways to automate your brain so that your habits will follow.

Find Substitutes That Satisfy If we all had the ability to make rational choices—zucchini is better for us than fettuccine—there would be no need for the multibillion-dollar diet industry. Eating can be an emotional action, and it's an addictive one. The average person knows that doughnuts are hand grenades to our health. But we pass by a neighboring cubicle with a dozen cream-filled jobbies, and we've finished three before we've even turned the corner. Experts say that people under the most stress tend to gain the most weight. So it's a double whammy. The exceptions? The super-wealthy stressed, such as actors and CEOs, who can afford nutritionists, chefs and personal trainers! But you don't need all that. And you don't have to starve or deny yourself. Instead, keep healthful contingency foods nearby, things like V8 juice, a handful of nuts, pieces of fruit, cut-up veggies or even a little guacamole. And clear the fridge and pantry of waist-killing goodies.

Walk This Way The root of a physical activity plan is a minimum of 30 minutes of walking a day (broken up into three segments of ten minutes each, if you have to), and then telling somebody about it after you're done (yes, every day, no excuses). You'll do it not only for the physical effects but also for the positive psychological effects, such as an increase in your self-esteem. Walk for 30 minutes—it's easy, doable and maintainable, and it's a first step out of the tornado and back into the game of life.

Be Touched On both a physical and an emotional level, seek out positive interactions with other people. (Remember the chat at the end of your walk.) Evidence shows that increased amounts of oxytocin (known as the "social bonding" hormone) may decrease blood pressure and lower the effects of stress. This raises levels of a substance that helps control your appetite. And research shows you can boost oxytocin levels through an increase in social interaction and touch. Even a massage may help.

Get Lost in Your Mind When you feel the urge to eat, sit and think about your life and what's driving you to pick up a fork or open the fridge. Would you shove that stuff into a friend's or a family member's body? For some, meditation or prayer enhances your power to satisfy the subconscious drive you have.

See the Naked Truth Stand naked in front of the mirror, without sucking in your belly, that is. For most of us, this exercise is as uncomfortable as a coach-class airline seat. But we need to realize that healthy weight is where we want to be, not fashion magazine weight or featherweight. That means we have to get comfortable with the fact that every woman isn't as light as a kite and every man won't have the body of Michael Vick, football star. So look at your body. Next, draw an outline of your body shape, from both the side and front views. Ask your partner or a close friend to look at the shape you drew and tell you honestly if that's approximately what your body looks like. This might be the first time you've ever had to articulate things about what your body looks like, and that's good.

Savor a Bit If you're going to eat something that's bad for you, enjoy it. Savor it. Roll it around in your mouth. We suggest taking a piece of dark, 70 percent cocoa chocolate and meditating—as a healthy stress reliever and as a way to reward yourself with something sweet. It's a small but effective way of feeling good without plummeting and scavenging for any old thing you can find. Bad foods are okay—once in a while.

The June issue of Selecciones magazine offers more tips on losing weight and staying thin. Pick up an issue today!