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What’s eating you could be controlling what you’re eating. Kelly James-Enger suggests that stress may be the most fattening thing in your diet.

You, stressed? Come on. Just because you're swamped at work and your car broke down doesn't mean you're stressed, does it? Sure, you admit you're a little frazzled, maybe even cranky. But the last straw came this morning when you discovered you can't zip up your favorite jeans.

Guess what? It may be the frantic lifestyle that's making those jeans so tight. Research shows stress can not only raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or other disease, it can add to your waistline as well. You can wind up storing more fat around your middle due to chronic stress at work or home, and feeling anxious can also lead to overeating in an attempt to distract yourself or feel better.

Read on for the surprising reasons stress may be your diet's worst enemy and how to keep your job from adding pounds to your problems.

The cortisol connection

Believe it or not, all fat is not created equal. According to Elissa Epel, a health psychology researcher at the Health Psychology Department at the University of California, San Francisco, "there are two basic types: visceral fat, which is stored in the abdomen and pads your internal organs, and peripheral fat, which is stored just below the skin."

While peripheral fat may not look attractive, it's less of a health risk than visceral fat. It's not clear why, but studies show that people with more visceral fat also have an increased risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and other diseases. Your genetics and body type will affect what type of fat you have and how much, but other factors may influence it as well.

Epel has studied connections between stress and fat placement for years. She's found that women tend to store more fat around their middles when they're under stress. This appears to be due to the fact that when your body is stressed, you produce higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

"Anatomically, this visceral fat is very sensitive to hormones," says Epel. "It has more receptors for hormones such as cortisol. If you have a lot of cortisol circulating in your body, that activates the fat-storing pathways and encourages your body to store more of this type of fat." If you're constantly under stress and your body is producing higher-than- normal levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, you may become thicker around the middle due to more visceral fat being deposited inside your abdomen.

Realize that if you're overweight, you're probably going to store extra fat all over, including at your waist. If you're fairly lean, though, and have a lot of abdominal fat, you may want to pay more attention to its cause. You may be genetically predisposed to store fat in that area, but stress could be a contributing factor as well.

How can you keep cortisol from affecting your waistline? Combat stress by exercising, making time for yourself, and taking mini-breaks throughout the day. "This is one more reason to pay attention to stress in our lives and in terms of weight regulation," says Epel. "It's not just a simple formula of calories in and calories expended. The hormonal environment can influence where the body places the fat."

Why stress makes you hungry

Picture this: You're driving to work and suddenly another car veers in front of you. You slam on the brakes and squeal to a stop, missing the car's bumper by inches. You gasp in fear and your heart pounds. A few minutes later, you feel shaky, weak, or nauseous. That's your body reacting to the perceived threat in what is called the fight-or-flight response—and it's likely to make you hungrier as a result, says Dr. Nick Hall, a psycho- neuro-immunologist and the director of the Wellness Center at Saddlebrook Resort in Miami, Florida.

The fight-or-flight response refers to how the body becomes mobilized in the wake of stress. As your cardiac, respiratory, and central nervous systems all become revved up and "ready for action," they require more fuel. "In that regard, the body is a machine," says Hall. "It needs fuel, which for humans is food, and the best food to eat during an emergency is that which is most rapidly converted into blood sugar—carbohydrates.”

While our primitive ancestors may have needed those extra calories to fight off attacks, the stressors of today usually don't require additional fuel to combat them—so those calories get stored as fat. Chronic stress can provoke this kind of response continuously, and you wind up with a constant urge to eat.

"Herein lies the problem," says Hall. "We still have that ravenous desire to take in food that would have been no problem when we were spending hours each day engaged in physical activity. But now it's a major problem."

Yet stress can suppress your appetite as well, and that's because of another chemical called corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRT), which is one of the first chemicals produced when you encounter stress. CRT initially shuts down your appetite and is associated with feeling anxious. It's when the other brain chemicals are produced that most people experience the urge to eat.

If you suddenly feel the need to eat but you know it's due to stress and not physical hunger, Hall suggests doing some push-ups or running up a flight of stairs. This will produce a small amount of CRT that will help take the edge off your appetite. Eating something low in calories—fruits or vegetables, for example can also let you respond to this primal urge without blowing your diet. Instead of beating yourself up for eating, spend a little extra time at the gym.

"Recognize that in times of stress, you're responding to natural biological cues that are going to have a tendency to make you eat a little bit more," says Hall.

Your brain is hungry

Do you turn to pasta or pizza when you're feeling anxious? Maybe you're short on serotonin, a brain chemical linked with depression—a lack of it can cause depression and may trigger a craving for carbohydrates. "When you eat carbohydrates, it actually can result in a restoration of serotonin back to normal," says Hall. "It's essentially a way of self-medicating."

However, this approach is far from foolproof—if your body can't convert the carbs into serotonin, you can eat as much pasta as you want and you'll only change the contour of your body, not the contour of your mind, according to Hall. But if you can't seem to get enough carbs, it may be worth checking with your doctor.

"It's important for people to realize that their desire for certain types of foods is not always triggered by hedonism," says Hall. "Sometimes there is something in the brain telling you that you need to fix a chemical imbalance."

To maintain optimal nutrition, Hall suggests at least 50 percent of the calories in your diet should come from carbohydrates with the rest distributed equally between fat and protein.

But I deserve it!

A reason stress affects your eating is a need to comfort yourself, says Joy Bauer, registered dietitian and author of The 90/10 Weight Loss Plan (Renaissance Media, 2001). "When you're stressed, inhibitions are down. People don't have the same staying power to make smart food choices," says Bauer. "They also tend to use food to numb themselves and as a feel-good. People associate stress with being nice to themselves and then interpret that to mean taking liberties with food that they normally wouldn't."

That may mean eating starchy, sweet foods like cakes or fatty, salty foods like French fries. People also tend to turn to "comfort foods" like potato chips, cookies, and pizza when they're under pressure. "Comfort foods tend to be foods that remind us of childhood when weight and calories and health weren't such an issue," says Bauer. "They're carefree foods and foods that we don't usually allow ourselves without guilt." The problem is that they're high in calories and fat and we eat more of them than we should.

Women often also use food as a distraction or to cope with feelings such as loneliness, depression, or anxiety. "They talk about feeling empty and using food to sort of stuff their emptiness," says Bauer. "For example, people who are home alone on Saturday night and who are depressed or bored or lonely might eat an entire tub of ice cream—they use food to numb emotions that they don't want to deal with or they don't know how to deal with."

The stress solution

Understanding the benefits of overcoming stress-induced eating is the first step to taking action.

"I think that people need to view stress as almost the most critical and important time to feel in control," says Bauer. "Going overboard [with food] makes us feel more out of control."

So, how do you feel more in control? By taking care of yourself, by doing things like eating healthfully, making time to exercise, and keeping your energy levels up instead of trying to escape your problems through food. "Nobody feels empowered when they're on the third row of shortbread creams during a stressful predicament," says Bauer. "When you eat well and exercise, it frees your head up to better deal with stress. You're clearer and less foggy from continuously stuffing yourself with junk food and fatty stuff."

Remember too that severely restricting your calories only adds to stress. If you've just moved house or have a full plate at work, it may not be the best time to resolve to lose those ten pounds. "It goes in both directions: You can't undereat and you can't overeat," says Bauer. "You have to invest in some sort of balance so that you're eating enough and not too much."

If you're anxious, overwhelmed or tense, look for options other than eating. Call a friend, write in your journal, or head out for a brief walk. Or put on some favorite music—something that reminds you of a time when you were happy—and focus on that.

If you've noticed that you're gaining weight, take a look at your lifestyle to see if stress could be the culprit. Maybe you just need to watch your diet or work out more, or maybe it's time to slow down. Remember that while stress can in fact make you fat, it doesn't have to. Develop effective ways of coping with stress and you'll not only feel better, you'll stay fitter as well.

Is Stress Making You Fat?

by Kelly James-Enger
From the April 2007 Signs