It wasn’t that long ago that physicians offered people looking for help with their weight a simple formula: calories consumed minus calories burned. It made mathematical sense, but it didn’t take into consideration our complex bodies, nor how vital a role the mind plays. In fact, it ignored things now considered obvious for losing weight — gender, muscle mass and sleep quality — among other factors.
If weight loss was about hard numbers, the struggle would be a lot easier. But it’s not, and as if it’s not complicated enough already, another factor researchers are now figuring into the equation is anxiety.
The Unlikely Connection Between Weight and Anxiety
It may not sound like the most obvious side effect of anxiety, but stress can tank your weight loss goals. When people feel stress, they tend to eat more — and what they eat tends to be comfort foods. Not ideal for the waistline.
Nearly 36% of the nation is overweight. Most people blame themselves for their inability to shed pounds. They think that if they ate better, exercised more and consumed less, they could look like their favorite character on television.
That’s not realistic, though. When people strive for unattainable goals, it sets them up for anxiety about aspects of their lives that aren’t always in their control.
Why Stress Makes You Hungry
When you are stressed out, your body hits survival mode and releases cortisol, the stress hormone. For generations, the minds of our ancestors reacted to the release of cortisol by assuming they’d burn extra calories fighting some stressor — but that stressor was a lion they needed to outrun, not a contentious board meeting. Your body still treats anxiety as if there’s a physical component, causing you to feel hungrier to make up for lost energy. It can also cause other issues like insomnia, acne, and can even lead to you grinding your teeth.
In addition to this, the food you crave during stress isn’t kale and apples. The cortisol the mind releases during times of anxiety causes increases in insulin levels, dropping blood sugar levels. Instead of making a healthy choice, your body craves starch and sugar. Desperate for high-energy food, people choose macaroni and cheese with a side of snicker-doodles instead of a healthier option. When this happens, people gain and lose weight because of anxiety.
How We Can Help Our Bodies and Our Waistline
Today’s world is fast-paced. Unfortunately, alleviating anxiety completely isn’t an option. One thing we can do is learn to manage our stressors, so when anxiety hits, our flight-or-fight mechanisms don’t automatically kick in. When that process is slowed, stress hormones aren’t as readily released, and the mind doesn’t assume it needs to increase the body’s caloric intake to survive.
40 million American adults suffer from anxiety. If you’re one of them and you struggle to keep your anxiety in check, it affects your whole body. Here are five ways to protect yourself from losing control of your weight by staying in control of your anxiety:
1. Avoid Strict Dieting
Some people count calories, and some rely on the Weight Watcher’s point system. Both can be helpful tools — when used in moderation.
If your mind becomes consumed with counting your daily intake, you may be doing more harm than good. There’s also science to prove it. Constant dieting can increase cortisol levels by as much as 18%.
2. Eat Slowly
Anxiety makes the mind feel rushed — as if there’s always something else to do next. When this happens during meals times, it’s terrible for the digestive process, your family and your scale.
When you eat slowly, savoring the meal and time with friends or family, your mind settles down. It also gives the stomach time to feel the meal and make you full, preventing overeating.
3. Use Caffeine with Caution
There isn’t much better than waking up to a warm cup of coffee, but maybe not if you’re anxious. Too much caffeine, when coupled with anxiety, is a terrible combination.
One study done by the University of Oklahoma saw a 25% increase in cortisol when people took caffeine while already dealing with anxiety.
4. Make Healthy Choices
Because of how our bodies handle stress, making healthy choices can be a challenge. If you work to make those choices a natural part of your day, it makes choosing unhealthy food more difficult.
For instance, if you’re craving sweets after a particularly stressful day, but there are no cookies left to munch, you’ll grab an apple because it’s there. It might not kill your craving completely, but it will mean you are less likely to overindulge.
5. Get Good Sleep
People wear sleep deprivation like a badge. It may start with the praise and reward that happens after staying up all night studying for exams — when you are young, it’s possible to do that and still be successful.
As we get older, even in our 20s, lack of sleep can make your brain work hardier, creating anxiety when it isn’t there.
Treat Your Body Well for Better Mental Health
It may go without saying, but when you take care of your body with proper exercise, self-care and healthy eating habits, your levels of anxiety drop, too. What makes for better mental health makes for better physical well-being, which means a healthier body and mind.
*This is a guest post written by Jennifer Landis, a twenty-something healthy living blogger, mother, wife, distance runner, yogi, and tea connoisseur. She enjoys clean eating, but also peanut butter ice cream. She writes about mindfulness, parenting, and clean eating on her blog, Mindfulness Mama. Follow her on twitter @JenniferELandis.