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stressed out black woman

(From get upset, you eat. You get depressed, you eat. You go through a breakup, you eat. For years, people have suspected that stress and obesity are linked, and now scientific research has found evidence to support this connection.

The Biological Connection

Ever notice that when you’re really stressed, you tend to crave comfort foods that are high in fat or sugar? Researchers have found that specific hormones may play a role in this process.

Serotonin. When we reach for fattening, comfort foods during stressful times, it may be an attempt to self-medicate. When we eat carbohydrates, it raises the body’s serotonin level. Serotonin is the body’s feel-good chemical. It makes you feel better. Not surprisingly, people under stress don’t tend to make smart food choices. Very often the carbohydrates that people go for are laden with fat, like muffins, pastries, doughnuts, and cookies. Unfortunately, we’re not craving whole-wheat pasta.

Cortisol. Researchers have also discovered that chronic stress can cause the body to release excess cortisol, a hormone critical in managing fat storage and energy use in the human body. Cortisol is known to increase appetite and may encourage cravings for sugary or fatty foods.

Neuropeptide Y. More recent studies also suggest that our bodies may process food differently when we’re under stress. One study found that lab mice fed a diet high in fat and sugar gained significant amounts of body fat when placed under stressful conditions. Mice fed a normal diet, however, didn’t gain as much weight despite stress. Researchers linked that phenomenon to a molecule called neuropeptide Y that is released from nerve cells during stress and encourages fat accumulation. A diet high in fat and sugar appears to further promote the release of neuropeptide Y.

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Break the Cycle

If we’re wired to seek out unhealthy foods when under stress, how do we avoid gaining weight when times get tough?

Don’t allow yourself to become too hungry. When you get hungry and you go too long without eating, your blood sugar drops. It’s very hard to think rationally when your blood sugar levels are low. You’ll eat anything. To avoid this scenario, be sure you’re not skipping meals.

Think about what you’re eating. When people are really stressed, they think that paying attention to their diet will cause more stress. Actually, it’s just the opposite. Don’t forget that food is fuel for your body and your brain. When you eat properly, you’re fueling your body to fight stress.

Keep portion size in mind. When people are stressed out, there’s a tendency to not think about what they’re eating and how much they’re eating. Smaller portions can help keep your total calorie intake under control.

Eat healthy snacks. Nutritionists recommend snacks that combine protein and carbohydrates. The body digests them more slowly, allowing you to feel fuller longer. An example might be almond butter and whole-grain crackers, or cheese and a piece of whole-grain bread.

Deal with your stress. This may be easier said than done, but finding ways to manage your stress is essential to your overall health. Try yoga, tai chi or meditation. Exercise regularly. Spend time with friends. Seek counseling if you’re overwhelmed. Reduce the number of stressors in your life.

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