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Fight Stress with Food: Five Steps to a Calmer, Healthier Life

By L.K. Regan

No one wants to be stressed—but everyone is. What you may not know is the chemical effect that stress is having on your body. In fact, stress may even be making you fat. You can fight back, though, through a low-stress diet and good eating habits. To tell us about the effects of stress, and to put us on the warpath to fight it nutritionally, we spoke to Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You.

"Our bodies haven't really changed since our caveman days," Villacorta began, "so even though the kinds of stress we are under—emails and deadlines rather than wild animals—have changed, our bodies react the same way. All sources of stress are the same to your body." So, he says, it's important to understand the body's physiological responses, so that we can reduce the response, even if we can't always reduce the stress.

Our physiological responses were designed by evolution to give us a fight-or-flight response—to let us fight the lion, or outrun it. When early humans faced a lion—or when you get yelled at by your boss—the adrenal glands, above the kidneys, secrete cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These are the stress hormones and, Villacorta says, "They get you ready to run; you become more alert, your pupils dilate." As part of this process, the cortisol releases glucose, or sugar, from your cells to your bloodstream so that your muscles can use this extra sugar to, as Villacorta puts it, "let you run for your life." Now, with eyes wide and blood-glucose levels high, you are in full fight-or-flight mode, ready to meet stress with reaction.

That is what happens when you have a single stressful event. But, as Villacorta points out, most of us have repeated stress episodes all day long: deadlines, work drama, relationship troubles, bills, and so on. And, when you have constant stress throughout the day, the situation gets more complicated. For one thing, all that glucose you keep freeing up to let you run for your life? Well, you never actually do run for your life, and so you never use it up. It goes instead to the liver to await processing, but the liver backs up, and so the glucose is stored as fat. And not just fat—visceral fat, the worst kind from the point of view of your health (for more on visceral fat, see Villacorta's advice on the subject).

Worse yet, the release of all of that glucose into your bloodstream has depleted your cells of fuel, so you get hungry, often at odd times of day, and mostly for sugar. And what do you do? You hunt for food in the office, where your only possible prey is doughnuts and candy. And since the stressful events never stop coming during your day, you keep producing cortisol. "It is proven that fat consumption lowers cortisol levels," Villacorta says, "and your body really wants to get those cortisol levels down; so you also crave fat."

Great. Now you're craving fat for the cortisol and sugar for the glucose—and your day has gone even more to hell than you know. Turns out, sitting at a desk is a really bad place for dealing with stress.

Can you handle one more? "Constantly elevated stress hormones deplete serotonin and dopamine," Villacorta says. These are the hormones that let you feel good and contented and un-stressed. "And carbohydrates help to re-elevate these hormones," he finishes. Uh-oh. You can see where this is heading. Now you crave carbohydrates on top of sugar and fat. At this rate you might just ask that doughnut to marry you.

The final straw is that many people skip breakfast, Villacorta says. So they're already hungry when the stress gets to them, and they are incapable of resisting the siren call of pastries and candy. "In this situation," Villacorta explains, "with the stress on top of the hunger, you go eat very badly around the office—doughnuts, candy—you'll eat whatever is around. So, not only does stress itself increase your visceral fat—but the food choices you make when stressed also make you fat. It is a vicious cycle." No kidding.

But you probably can't quit your job right now. And in the modern world the stress just isn't going to go away. As Villacorta says, "Something will always happen." So what are you to do? Here are Villacorta's five recommendations for fighting stress through better eating:

  1. Always eat breakfast within one hour of waking up. "A lot of guys think protein shake when they think breakfast," Villacorta says. "But really, what helps most is a high-fiber breakfast." Fiber regulates glucose and insulin, and fills you up; its positive effects will determine the rest of the day. Villacorta recommends eating one to two cups of a high-fiber cereal for breakfast, choosing a cereal with at least five grams of dietary fiber per serving. To get the full nutritional benefits, he councils adding berries and flax seed meal (not whole flax seeds).
  2. Don't delay meals. It is so easy to push back lunch, or to skip it altogether and figure you'll get a snack later. But that leaves you vulnerable to snacking and overeating when the stress crisis hits. Take preventive measures and eat every three hours; that way you won't ever get too hungry, and you'll be able to control your food intake.
  3. Take small walks during the day. Even if you exercise, you need to keep moving through your stressful situations. "All of that sitting at a desk lets the glucose and cortisol accumulate," Villacorta says. You need to walk it off periodically. He councils that office workers go for a 10-minute walk in the morning and the evening, just to flush out the stress hormones.
  4. Drink plenty of water and fluids throughout the day. "Many times thirst is physically confused with hunger," Villacorta tells us. So stay hydrated to ensure that you can read your body's signals accurately.
  5. Just face it—you will crave carbs. Since it's unavoidable, have some healthy carbs with you. Villacorta recommends an apple or a yogurt, or a handful of pretzels. "It's really pretty simple," he says. "Feed the body the right things from the beginning of the day and all the way through, so that you never get to overeat."
Armed with this information, you should be able to go to work with a new confidence, ready to face down any lions (or problematic emails) you may encounter.