Stress and Diet

Anyone who's ever numbed the stress of a bad experience with a pint of Ben & Jerry's knows it's true: Stress makes us fat. When we're feeling down, most of us are more apt to grab a pint of fudge-brownie ice cream than we are to hit the treadmill.

Even without a major catastrophe such as death, divorce, or a move, many of us spend our days fretting and worrying about troubles big and small while sitting in a chair or lying in bed. Problem is, your body doesn't know that you're at a standstill and continues to trigger the stress response, which ratchets up your appetite and tells you to replenish your energy stores. To make matters worse, stress tends to cause cravings for cakes and candy, fats, and carbohydrates that deliver fast energy.

Eating high-fat, high-carb foods while you're under stress may also be a learned behavior, taught by well-meaning relatives who encouraged you to eat a bowl of ice cream when you were feeling sad or gave you cookies after a bad day at school. To top it off, cortisol tends to cause us to deposit fat in our abdomen. In any case, the result is the same — weight gain from overeating due to stress.

Why do I eat so poorly when I'm stressed?

Loading up on carbohydrates may do more than make you feel better. Scientists think that fats and sugar may actually help the body silence the stress response. Researchers at the University of California in San Francisco found that after eating sucrose and fats, stressed-out rats showed a decrease in their production of cortisol.

Eating poorly is only one unhealthy habit that can crop up during a stressful spell. When you're in the throes of stress, it's easy to let go of healthy habits you've spent years cultivating. Not only are you more likely to grab for a candy bar than an apple, but you're also less likely to exercise, sleep well, and take care of yourself.

If you have fibromyalgia or another chronic condition, you may be less likely to remember your medications, make necessary doctor appointments, and perform the strategies you need to stay well. And if stress evolves into full-blown depression, you may adopt a lackadaisical attitude that can interfere with your efforts to stay healthy.

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