Is stress making you fat?

Some people handle stress by undertaking great challenges and reaching for the stars. Many of us, however, react to pressure by reaching for a bag of chocolate-chip cookies.

Stress can increase your risk for serious health problems, cardiovascular disease or stroke, and can actually increase your appetite while expanding your waistline.

Stress and eating pattern

Not only does stress increase our appetites, it typically makes us crave foods that are calorie-laden and lacking in nutrients. Research shows that stress-eaters make bad food choices. Some crave sweets, chocolate and baked goods, while others crave salty, crunchy foods like pretzels and fatty foods like ribs and burgers. Others swoon over creamy treats like ice cream, cheese or whipped cream.

No matter how difficult the challenge, there are ways to handle life’s rough patches.

The following are some practical techniques for reducing the stress response that contributes to overeating.

Seek comfort beyond food

Engage in pleasurable activities that pamper you. Do something fun that doesn’t involve consuming calories. A few options include:

Getting a massage Taking a nap Going for a walk Meditation Calling a friend Having some coffee or your favorite tea Having sex Watching a favorite movie

Taking charge of the situation

When faced with a stressful event, ask yourself what you can change to minimize the pressure. We are never without working options even during the most stressful of times. Elect to take charge of the situation rather than being a victim.

Eat a variety of real foods throughout the day

Because stress affects blood sugar, it is important to eat healthy meals throughout the day to maintain blood-sugar levels. Don’t automatically reach for sugary carbohydrates. Instead, include protein, veggies, healthy carbs and some good fat in the meal as well. A well-balanced breakfast gets you off to a good start and helps to maintain a high level of energy throughout the day, thereby reducing your cravings for sugary foods.

Replenish vitamins and mineral stores

Stress causes the body to burn more vitamins and minerals, specifically B-complex magnesium and zinc. These are needed for blood-sugar balance, and when their levels drop, stress levels increase. In addition, adrenal glands require more vitamin C during stressful times, and to offset these needs you may want to use a vitamin supplement, or increase your daily servings of fresh fruit and leafy green vegetables.

Get physical

Moderate exercise can help reduce the body’s production of the stress-response hormone cortisol during times of stress. Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands when we suddenly experience unexpected stress. Higher levels of cortisol can increase the risk of diabetes and the amount of fat in the midsection (your spare tire), and raise blood pressure to dangerous levels. Physical activity has a calming effect on stressed individuals. Studies have shown that exercise modulates mood, improves self-efficacy and self-esteem, and re-programs the brain for optimism instead of pessimism. Try to maintain a consistent exercise program that combines aerobics and strength-training, but don’t overdo it, as too much exercise can create the reverse effect, further increasing cortisol levels. Get plenty of rest

Research has shown that most Americans get at least two hours too little sleep each night. Sleep deprivation affects blood-sugar levels, reduces the production of human-growth hormones, increases the production of cortisol and reduces the secretion of leptin (the hormone that makes you full and satisfied). Make it a point to go to bed a bit earlier each night during those trying times, and aim for at least eight hours of sleep each night. Rest is restorative to the body, especially the nervous system and the adrenal glands.

Jim Hart is a certified nutrition coach, master chef and wellness counselor specializing in addictions at Seabrook House. He has been a personal trainer at 12th Street Gym in Philadelphia for 15 years He can be reached at [email protected] or visit for more information.