Stop Blaming Junk Food: Is Stress the Real Reason You're Gaining Weight?

In our OB-GYN practice, the #1 complaint we hear from our patients is about weight gain. The climate in southern California, where we live and work, encourages body awareness because we rarely have to bundle up; but this concern extends far beyond the borders of Newport Beach. The fact is that almost half the women and a quarter of the men in the United States are on diets. Four out of five American women say they are dissatisfied with the way their bodies look.

Though some women lose the desire to eat when they are stressed, chronic stress can also produce the "feed and faze out" response. When we feed and faze, we first try to calm ourselves with comfort food and are then so drained that we veg out. Who hasn't sat in front of the TV after a tough day lost in a reality show or mindless movie, eating pizza, ice cream or other high calorie treats?

Weight gain and obesity may be the result of many factors--genetics, medical problems, medications, lifestyle--and stress is often at the core of this problem. Modern society promotes obesity. More high-energy, dense foods at low prices are readily available everywhere. So many of us have sedentary 9 to 5 jobs, and our time outside the office is spent driving, watching television, or sitting in front of our at-home computer screen. While we can eat better and less and get out and move more, we can also learn to control how we respond to stress to help shed those extra pounds.

Some studies show that people who are obese tend to have higher levels of cortisol output. Chronic stress or stress that is poorly managed can lead to elevated cortisol levels that can stimulate your appetite, resulting in weight gain or difficulty in losing unwanted pounds. Here's why: Cortisol's main task is to provide energy for the body, which involves the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates when energy is needed quickly. Chronic stress makes your metabolism more efficient in the drive to store energy. Your body stores more calories when you are under stress, and that is what makes you gain weight.

Cortisol also fuels insulin resistance, maintaining blood sugar levels. After the stress is resolved, cortisol stimulates appetite so that the emergency energy can be replaced. As a result, chronic stress can increase your appetite. Elevated levels of cortisol have also been shown to cause belly fat, which can be associated with cardiovascular disease in women.

With this in mind, here are a few no-diet nutrition tips that help limit those stress-induced binges while keeping your body balanced and healthy:

• THINK BEFORE YOU DRINK: Beverages such as soda and juice are a major source of calories in our diets but not always a good source of nutrition or energy. Studies have shown that sugar-sweetened drinks can lead to obesity and weight gain because calories you drink are less satisfying than those derived from solid food, this compels you to eat more at your next meal. Water is always the best beverage choice. A tall glass of water can also curb your appetite and might even help stop those late night munchies

• SUBSTITUTE OUT THE SUGAR SUBSTITUTE: Our bodies judge how many calories a food contains by how it tastes. Sugar substitutes such as saccharin, sucratose and neotame separate the taste of sweetness from the calories and are two hundred to thirteen thousand times as sweet as sugar. The taste buds communicate with the brain that energy is coming in, but the body does not get the fuel it expects. The extremely sweet signal elevates endorphins to the brain which translates to increased pleasure, which can in turn lead to eating more

• BEAT THE BLOAT: A study from the University of Alberta, Canada, found that women who experience PMS drink significantly less water than other women. Perhaps these women were concerned that drinking too much water would increase fluid retention. The fact is that not drinking enough water actually causes your body to retain fluids. BONUS FACT: Reducing salt intake and consuming more water helps the body to excrete excess fluid, which can help reduce the bloating, swelling and breast tenderness associated with PMS

• EAT CHOCOLATE: When you have a craving, eat a piece of dark chocolate. The chocolate will calm the craving and boost your endorphin production. Dark chocolate is less processed and has less sugar than other types of chocolate, but will still give you a treat. Snacks high in fiber, such as oatmeal, nuts, or fruit, are another good choice and will make you feel satisfied. SIDE BENEFIT: fiber will improve your digestion, as people under stress are more prone to irritable bowel function

For other ways to fight stress through nutrition, exercise and relaxation, get a copy of So Stressed: The Ultimate Stress-Relief Plan for Women today.