Stress is defined as a normal response to situational pressures or demands and is a part of everyday life.
You may find yourself turning to food when managing stress in your life, it is comforting for us. This is not a normal relationship with food! Food should not be treated as a crutch in managing life; it needs to be purely thought of as fuel for our body. Period.
The problem comes when we decide to get healthy; we change our eating habits and make healthier choices. However, what happens when we feel stressed? We want to turn to food but know we cannot; now we are stressed about being stressed! Stress in our bodies can manifest cognitively, emotionally, physically or throughout behaviors (CAMH, 2019):
- Difficulty concentrating or thinking
- Memory problems
- Lack of self-confidence
- Negative thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Difficulty with making decisions
- Low morale
- Feeling hopeless
- Feeling apprehensive
- Feeling agitated or inability to relax
- Muscle Tension
- Stomach Problems
- Nausea, diarrhea or vomiting
- Low sex drive
- High blood pressure
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Social Withdrawal
- Nervous habits (nail biting, teeth grinding)
- Neglect of family responsibilities
- Decline in performance or productivity
It is important to know how stress affects us—It increases our appetite, makes us hold onto fat, and it interferes with our willpower to implement and sustain a healthy lifestyle. Everything in our life encourages us to use food to manage life; you break up with someone, eat ice cream or if you feel sad eat chips or candy. Although the sugars in these foods give us that high in our mood, it ALWAYS results in a low. If you are overweight, your brain needs some retraining when it comes to our relationship with food. Cortisol, which is our stress hormone, tells our brain we need more fat and sugar, our body naturally wants to refuel resulting in an extra layer of visceral fat in our bellies. Honestly, given my body composition at the start of my transformation, my body was ready for war!
Stress leads to stress—we are stressed so we eat, we eat and feel guilty, we feel guilty and eat more resulting in weight gain—and on and on.
Stress cannot be avoided in life, everyone experiences stress differently and our tolerances vary. I have always used stress as an excuse to avoid dealing with my health; I was a student, I was getting married, I was pregnant, I am a new mom. If you ever needed an excuse, I was your girl! Anytime I started a diet, I would spend a lot of time thinking about food, essentially I would stress about what to eat and what not to eat. This manifested in my body as a feeling of unwell, mentally I believed that if I allowed myself to eat something less nutritious then I would feel better. This makes no actual sense.
I contribute a lot of my weight gain in life to stress and the inability to cope with it. I was in an abusive relationship for all those years and was in school. After I got divorced, I was dealing with co-parenting, abusive language, dating, multiple jobs and single parenting. The answer to losing weight is not to not have stress that is impossible, it is managing stress more effectively.
Food was my best friend; it helped me through everything and was always there for me; so how did I manage to lose all this weight naturally? Well it was not easy, I had to retrain my mind. Here are some tips that I found helpful when starting weight loss:
- Exercise- Oddly enough, once I started working out it became an outlet for managing life. At first, it was hard, working out frustrated me because I wasn’t “good” at it but it forced me to continue to work harder. Exercise decreases cortisol and triggers release of chemicals that relieve pain and improve mood. I assure you over the last 10 months my life stressors have not changed, they are still alive and well, however I learned I can control my response to them. I do not participate in conversations with negative people, I do not argue with people when ultimately, their opinion does not affect me and I walk away from relationships that are toxic.
- Eat Mindfully/Prepare-If you fail to prepare; you must be prepared to fail. I found meal prepping was the most helpful thing I can do. I am busy with work, school, kids and gym and not having food prepared would cause me a lot of stress; so to avoid that I make my meals ahead of time. There are courses you can take on eating mindfully, I just started to take the time to enjoy the foods I was eating and took note of how it made me feel. I also tracked my food, this helped me to identify what triggered hunger and when I was full. I had a pattern in my history that I would overly restrict my calories with a goal to lose weight; tracking my food helped to ensure I was eating the appropriate amount considering my activity level at the time.
- Rewards-Stop using food as a reward, this contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food. I used to always rationalize having “cheat” meals or if I worked out a couple of times in 1 day it means I could eat something unhealthy. That is not correct, yes if you have a really hard workout you should be eating more, but eating foods that will help your body recover and function not calorie deficient foods. My rewards now are doing an event I once could not do or buying a piece of clothing that never would fit in the past.
Everyone can achieve weight loss, but your fear of failure will always continue to make excuses. It does not take a special person to be fit and the gym isn’t filled with magic. Weight loss is achieved through hard work and discipline; it is teaching yourself how to manage life with a different mindset. For me it would have been easier in the short-term to continue ignoring my health; however, my body would have forced me to deal with it through illnesses.