Stress: How It May be Sabotaging Your Healthy Diet

Monday, 08 Feb 16

By Jaime Rose Chambers APD (B.Nutr&Diet)

We’ve all been in that position; there’s an apple sitting on our desk at work that we’ve thoughtfully broght from home and planned to eat as an afternoon snack. Then a colleague brings in donuts and there begins the days toughest decision: to apple or to donut…!? I t’s been a rotten day; deadlines, late for work, unhappy clients – so we just grab the donut and the apple lives to see another day sitting on our desk, uneaten. A number of studies are now suggesting that those food choices we make might come down to one major factor: stress.

Stress can impact our healthy diet decision-making on a number of levels:

1. It’s believed to weaken our self-control to making healthy food decisions.

A study was done on moderately stressed individuals that showed they were more likely to go for a tastier, less healthy food than a healthier, less tasty food when they were stressed. Brain activity during this time of stress showed increased activity in the area of instant gratification but a reduced activity in the area that controls willpower necessary to achieve long-term health goals suggesting that stress may weaken our self-control.

2. It can cause us to over-eat.

In the short-term, a short burst of stress releases adrenaline, which can shut down and dampen our appetite. However over a longer period of stressful time, the adrenal glands begin to release another hormone called cortisol, which ramps up our appetite and if this stress does not disappear, we remain in this hungry state until the stress disappears.

3. It can cause food cravings, of the fat & sugar variety.

Some studies have shown that high fat and high sugar foods have an impact on the brain that supresses stress so they become like ‘feel good’ food that is thought to actually reduce stress. Those high cortisol levels in times of long-term stress, coupled with raised insulin levels are thought to be the culprits. Throw in the mix that stress is also linked to lack of sleep and exercise and higher alcohol intake – all factors that can affect our health and our weight.

Achieving and maintaining a long-term, healthy diet and lifestyle is an incredibly complex and multi-faceted journey. It’s just not as simple as having strong motivation. There’s no doubt though that the more stressed we are, particularly long-term, chronic stress, the greater the challenge we face in achieving our health goals. Before embarking on a health journey, the number one priority should be a focus on stress management. Firstly, recognising that stress has this impact means we can find strategies to remove temptations such as not keeping chocolate or chips at home. Secondly, targeting the stress in our lives is important for long-term health and this may include regular exercise, meditation, yoga, reading or talking it through with a friend.

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