Eating under stress? Here’s how to train your brain to crave healthy foods.

Worries about inflation, the economy, the lingering effects of the pandemic and other global crises have pushed stress levels in the United States to new heights. For some people, this stress shows up on the scale.

There is a lot of biological mechanisms which explain why stress and anxiety can cause people to gain extra pounds. In some cases, weight gain can itself become a source of stress and stigma that fuels further weight gain.

Although we can’t eliminate all major sources of stress in our lives, we can control – to some degree – the impact it has on our bodies. Scientists have discovered that there are ways to alleviate stress and retrain your brain to improve your diet and prevent stress-induced weight gain.

How Stress Promotes Belly Fat

Our bodies evolved to secrete cortisol, the stress hormone, when our brain senses danger. Cortisol increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. In the short term, cortisol protects you from immediate threats by sending your body into fight or flight mode. But when your job, finances, and other circumstances regularly increase your stress levels, it can lead to chronically elevated cortisol.

How stress can damage your brain and body

A side effect of cortisol is that it promotes body fat, especially abdominal and visceral fat, which is a particularly toxic type of fat that surrounds internal organs. Studies show that people with higher cortisol levels tend to have a higher body mass index.

If you’re constantly struggling with stress, it can send signals to your body to accumulate fat, said A. Janet Tomiyama, head of the Dieting, Stress and Health Lab at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“Even if you don’t change a single thing you eat, being stressed is going to promote fat deposition,” said Tomiyama, who has studied the mechanisms behind stress and obesity.

Why a Stressed Brain Makes You Eat More

In laboratory studies, scientists have found that giving people synthetic versions of cortisol causes them to eat significantly more calories than people given a placebo. That’s partly because cortisol reduces your brain’s sensitivity to leptin, also known as the satiety hormone, which regulates your appetite and makes you feel full.

In study of department store employeespeople ate more sugar, saturated fat, and overall calories when they had to work long, demanding shifts than when they worked less stressful shifts with lighter workloads.

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Even the stress of activities we enjoy can lead to overeating. In one study, researchers followed ardent football fans in different cities. They found that fans whose NFL teams lost on Sunday consumed more calories and saturated fat the next day. Fans whose teams won ate less food and saturated fat the following day. Scientists found similar results when they looked at the eating habits of French football fans.

Chocolate, candy, ice cream and other comfort foods alleviate stress in part through their effects on the brain. They activate reward regions like the nucleus accumbens, flooding them with dopamine, the hormone that promotes pleasure, and other neurotransmitters.

Some people find that in stressful situations their appetite drops. Scientists aren’t quite sure why stress drives some people to the cookie jar and no others, but weight seems to play a role. Some studies suggest that insulin resistancea precursor to type 2 diabetes, which is more common in obese people, can cause changes in brain activity that intensify food cravings in response to stress.

How to retrain your brain to fight food stress

While you can’t always reduce the stress in your life, you can retrain your brain to want better foods when you’re eating under stress.

In a study published last year, Tomiyama and his colleagues recruited 100 adults with high levels of stress and divided them into two groups. Everyone has been trained to do a daily six-minute stress reduction exercise called progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and relaxing your muscles from head to toe. You can find an example here. This deep relaxation technique has been shown in studies to reduce stress and anxiety.

But members of one group were instructed to eat a serving of fresh fruit such as slices of pineapple, honeydew and pears, about five minutes after each of their daily progressive muscle relaxation sessions. After a week, researchers found that eating only the fruit alone made participants less stressed and put them in a better mood. By associating the fruit with a relaxation exercise, their brains began to view the fruit as something that lowered their stress levels – essentially turning the fruit into a comfort food.

“Whenever two things happen at the same time, your mind creates a connection between them,” Tomiyama said. “By associating relaxation and fruit together, your mind begins to see them as the same thing. After a while, you won’t even need to do the six minutes of relaxation: all you have to do is eat the fruit, and you’ll get the same relaxation benefit.

Tomiyama offered some advice for those who want to try this.

  • Choose a type of fruit that you don’t eat often, such as star fruit, kiwi, or mango. If fresh versions of these fruits are too expensive or impractical, use frozen fruits.
  • Try this exercise at different times of the day and in different places in your home or office. If you always do this at your kitchen table, it will only work at your kitchen table.
  • When you’re feeling stressed or anxious, grab your “comfort fruit” instead of a bag of chips.

“It’s a way to definitely hack your comfort eating habit,” Tomiyama said.

Do you have a question about healthy eating? E-mail [email protected] and we may answer your question in a future column.

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