How Stress Can Affect Your Weight Loss EffortsAugust 8, 2022
How Stress Can Affect Your Weight Loss Efforts? “Life happened,” is the response I hear most often when I ask, “What do you think led to your weight regain?” Upon further investigation, I learn that “life happened” is code for,
“I was dealing with a lot of stress.” Stress… that ever-present emotional tension we experience from our very demanding lives. How does stress interfere with attempts to lose weight?
No doubt you’ve heard the term “emotional eating.” It’s likely you’ve described yourself at some point as an emotional eater. Stress is how the body reacts to challenges or demands that leave you feeling upset, anxious, worried, or frustrated.
How do you know if you’re an emotional eater? Here are some indications that you may be an emotional eater:
You eat to make yourself feel better
- Your boss gives you a poor performance review. You feel angry and hurt. Your automatic response is to reach for a sugar/carb-filled “treat.”
- Your aging parents live on their own but call you several times a week in the middle of the night, leaving you feeling helpless and upset. You’re already awake and grab a handful of cookies before trying to get back to sleep.
Do you feel like food is a friend?
- You’re sitting home alone on Saturday night, have struck trying to find someone to hang out with. You feel lonely and rejected. You turn on the television and sit down with a tub of popcorn and a bag of chocolates.
- Your job requires that you travel a lot to neighboring communities. You have a tight schedule and are expected to be at your next location within a few minutes of your determined arrival time. You feel anxious and irritated. Your travel companions are snack crackers, sodas, and miniature candy bars.
Does food make you feel safe?
- You are out of town for a job interview. You feel worried and are anxious about the outcome. You find yourself reaching into a bag of candy every few minutes.
- The weather outside is threatening. Rain, thunder, and lightning rage outside your windows. You feel scared. You rummage through the cabinets and fridge, deciding to heat up left-over mashed potatoes. Ah, comfort food.
Emotional hunger is often sudden… and specific. You feel angry and you need your favorite brand of chocolate now. You’re upset about the fact that your teenager just had a teen version of a temper tantrum. You suddenly feel like you need a particular ice cream treat and you obsess about it until you go get it.
Stress Can Affect Your Weight Loss
When people stress-eat, they often continue to eat even when they are not hungry. They also mindlessly eat, not paying attention to what or how much they eat. Your mother’s health condition is declining. You are awaiting test results and find yourself with an empty bag of chips you opened only 30 minutes ago with a stash of other snacks to munch on.
Eating when stressed leaves people feeling upset and guilty. “What was I thinking?” “Why did I do that?” “What’s the matter with me?” “I’m so weak against food.” “I don’t handle my emotions well.”
It’s easy to understand how stress interferes with weight loss or can lead to weight regain. Eating in response to stress-inducing events involving unpleasant emotions most often means consuming “comfort” type foods (non-foods, actually, as many comfort foods are primarily sugar concoctions or combinations of chemically engineered items we refer to as “food.”) People rarely reach for a healthy salad, a handful of fresh berries or some protein-packed Greek yogurt when they are in emotional turmoil. Stress eating most often involves ice cream in some form (shakes, sundaes, half gallons), chocolate and other candies, cookies, cakes, potato chips, other types of artificially flavored chips, fried foods, and other “junk foods.” These foods are high in calories and low in nutrition. That’s a recipe for weight gain. Weight loss efforts are undeniably negatively impacted by stress and emotional eating.
Nutritional Information and Advice is Critical
People wanting to lose weight are often well-aware of their struggles with how stress can affect your weight loss and stress eating. They are also painfully aware that engaging in emotional eating interferes with weight loss progress. Weight loss programs rarely provide ongoing education for dealing with stress eating. Clearly, nutritional information and advice is critical to the weight loss process, as is education about physical exercise. Little time and effort are dedicated to helping patients learn the skills they need to overcome stress eating and other emotionally based issues that interfere with the weight loss process.
The great news is that anyone can learn healthy skills to decrease or eradicate stress eating. Doing so can greatly enhance one’s success in losing weight! The first step to ending stress eating is acknowledging and accepting that stress is an inevitable part of life! There are bills to pay, kids to taxi to taxi about, partners and spouses to deal with, parents and/or siblings to engage with, jobs and co-workers to contend with, illnesses to heal from, and hundreds of miscellaneous items to address. Life is stressful. Accept it, and then learn to handle stress in healthy ways rather than using food to avoid the issue or the emotions attached to the issue.
Identifying how you feel, recognizing what you need, and choosing what to do instead of reaching for unhealthy food is a powerful way to help you avoid stress eating and to successfully continue your weight loss process. This can be difficult to do at first, but with effort and practice, you can develop this life-enhancing practice and keep your weight down at the same time!
Dealing with Anger and Hurt
If your boss gives you a poor performance review, identify that you feel angry and hurt. Rather than reaching for a sugar/carb-filled food to numb your anger and hurt, recognize that you need to deal with your anger and hurt in healthy ways. Anger can be dealt with by releasing physical energy that accompanies intense emotion. Taking a brisk walk, sitting in your car and yelling where no one will be hurt, or kicking a ball around for a few minutes can help expel angry energy. More passive ways of dealing with anger in healthy ways are to call a friend and talk about what has you upset or write about the situation and how you feel in a journal. Your feelings of hurt can be addressed in similar ways: talking to a friend, journaling, or learning ways to evaluate your thoughts.
When you’re sitting home alone on Saturday night, identify that you feel lonely and rejected. Rather than sitting down with a tub of popcorn and a bag of chocolates, realize that you can deal with your feelings in healthier ways. Loneliness can be combated by reaching out to another person to see how they are doing, making a list of things for which you are grateful or getting involved in a great book or online group chat. Using cognitive emotional skills to combat negative thinking can help deal with feeling rejected.
Stress can affect your weight loss efforts. Learn to deal with stress and emotions in healthy ways. Your health, both physical and emotional, will benefit! You’re worth the effort!
Connie Stapleton, PhD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and owner of Mind Body Health Services
ABOUT THE AUTHORConnie Stapleton, PhD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with nearly two decades of experience in the field of bariatric medicine. Dr. Stapleton is the author of three books, is a national and international speaker, and appears as the bariatric psychologist on three national television programs. Read more articles by Connie Stapleton!