This ‘sandwich generation’ of midlife women has a double whammy of stress as they are often still housing and looking after boomerang children, as well as caring for aging parents.
Many of the symptoms of the menopause – memory lapses and loss of concentration – only make you more stressed.
Some women even worry that they have dementia because of the forgetfulness when sex hormones plummet during menopause.
According to new research, when stressed, mice are more likely to become obese due to a molecule in the brain that triggers a shift in their metabolism.
Here, Dr Meg Arroll, a leading psychologist, explains why stress drives us to comfort eat and how to tackle it.
One of her clients, Jennifer, shares her own story of how she cut out the snacks.
And Rob Hobson, a medical nutritionist and author, offers his tips on healthy snacking, even when you’re at your wits’ end.
Stress, the brain and weight gain
Reaching for the cake, ice cream and pizza when stressed is a common occurrence. But a recent study published in the scientific journal Cell Metabolism demonstrated that eating when stressed leads to more weight gain.
The researchers looked different areas of the brain in stressed mice – and importantly, when the mice also had access to high calorie food. They found that chronic stress alone raised insulin levels only marginally, but when the mice ate energy dense food while being stressed, their insulin levels were raised tenfold in comparison to mice who only had access to their usual diet.
The reason for this is a molecular pathway in the brain controlled by insulin – insulin is one of the hormones that helps moderate our food intake, so any disruption in this pathway can lead to overeating.
HOW I STOPPED COMFORT EATING
Jennifer was a classic comfort eater – piling on almost 50lbs following a bereavement, the onslaught of the menopause and the break-up of a relationship. She tried lots of different diets – all working for a while but then would regain every pound and a few more on top.
Working with Dr Meg Arroll within the Shrinkology approach, she started to recognize her pattern of eating to sooth negative emotions.
An emotional eater, she was addicted to the release from discomfort that food, particularly of the sugary variety, brought – the momentary sense of pleasure and satisfaction when feeling something she didn’t want to feel
Jennifer was a classic comfort eater – piling on almost 50lbs following a bereavement
They worked together to heal her relationship with food and within a few months Jennifer had started to learn to enjoy food – and life – in a whole new way.
The path wasn’t easy – it took time to start welcoming negative emotions with kindness and understanding. Identifying key triggers such as feelings of anxiety and guilt helped build strategies to cope in a way that didn’t involve food.
Moving away from the binge/starve cycle was tricky, but with focus on self-care such as eating delicious healthy foods and ensuring time to relax and to socialize, a much healthier attitude to food was attained.
Jennifer has now lost 30lbs and more importantly is enjoying life with more confidence than before.
No longer obsessing about food has given her the head space to focus on the joy of life. Every day her relationship with food becomes healthier and, in contrast to most ‘diets’, it is getting easier and easier as time goes on.
Our bodies naturally produce insulin after we eat, which helps our cells absorb glucose from the blood and also triggers satiety signals so that we feel full.
However, this study showed that in a high stress environment surrounded by high calorie foods, specific neurons related to insulin became desensitized – leading the mice to eat more and expend less energy.
Although this study used animals, it does show how insidious our current obesogenic environment is.
Why the environment is causing weight gain
Taking this research together with current levels of stress in daily life and the environments we now live in, it’s becoming clearer why rates of obesity have rocketed.
Not only do we have physiological and emotional reasons for comfort eating, the environment is packed full of powerful drivers to eat when stressed.
The food industry spends millions upon millions of pounds each year on advertising, food science and development to keep us buying junk. Processed food is far more profitable than freshly picked fruit and veg as it has a much longer shelf-life, can be transported easily and its ingredients are cheap.
So it’s not at all surprising that we reach for unhealthy foods as there are now countless fast food outlets on our high stress.
We don’t even have to leave the door to bag these treats – with a swipe of the finger, in most big cities any number of fast food options will arrive at your door in less time that it would take to cook something from scratch.
Our emotional needs can be met with the serotonin-boosting impact of foods such as chocolate, so why would we need to stop for a moment and consider if we’re really hungry for food – or if we’re instead stressed, lonely, bored, etc.
Emotional triggers for comfort eating – and how to deal with them
Associating unhealthy food with fun times and feel-good images gets us hooked from early on. When later on, life gets a bit stressful, our brains automatically seek out these foods for that mood boost.
Coupled with the fact that scientists engineer foods to hit a ‘bliss point’ – a magical combination of fat, carbohydrate and sugar in products like donuts – that triggers and addictive-like response in our brains, it really is no surprise that’s it takes a huge amount of willpower to resist tempting treats.
These eating patterns can be set in childhood – a scraped knee or hurt feelings are so often soothed by sweet or fatty treats.
This is why as adults we mindlessly comfort eat after a hard day at work – but it is possible to break these patterns by first understanding where they stem from.
Don’t just diet: Stress reduction is key to losing weight and keeping it off
Here are my top tips for managing stress in daily life, which will help to avoid comfort eating:
- Delegate: you don’t have to be everything to everyone all the time. If you have dual caring responsibilities, ask for help. This could be from other family members, friends, local community services or charities. Women particularly feel responsibility for care-giving, but without respite this can take a major toll on health and well-being.
- Get creative: carving out time for a creative activity is a very good way to manage stress as it helps us to have a least a few worry-free moments. If you find you have intrusive thoughts while trying to concentrate on an activity, breathe deeply through your diaphragm whilst acknowledging the thoughts – then gently nudge them away. This type of mindful practice will help retrain your brain to stay in the moment.
- Walk it out: even a 10-minute walk can boost mental health. Walking outside also gets us back in touch with the natural world which is also associated with lowered levels of stress. If you have a four-legged friend even better as research shows that walking with a dog burns more energy than going solo. We’re also more likely to stop and chat with other dog owners – this type of social connectivity is extremely beneficial to managing stress.
- Interact: there’s been a lot of attention on the detrimental effects of social media, but used as a method of real connection it can have a positive impact on our mental health. Being a ‘passive user’, i.e. simply liking posts and looking at others’ updates is linked to low mood and feelings of low self-esteem, but if used to communicate with people, it can be another way to express our feelings. So, message friends and chat with them, rather than scrolling through endless posts.
- Seek help: If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress however, do seek help from a professional. Your doctor may want to refer you for sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy or you can search for local counselors, therapists or psychologists. There is no shame at all in seeking help – just as we’d ask for expert advice in medical matters, exercise or nutrition, keeping our minds fit and healthy sometimes needs a bit of support.
How to eat to beat the stress but not pile on the pounds
Rob Hobson, a leading nutritionist at Healthspan, says:
Dr Arroll’s book has more tips in it
- Stress can lead to erratic eating patterns which often promotes the unhealthy food choices that can result in unwanted weight gain.
- Skipping meals is common during times of stress and can encourage unhealthy snacking on sweet foods and drinks used as a way of boosting energy.
- Overeating these type of foods does not keep you feeling full for very long as will likely have you back at the biscuit jar shortly afterwards as blood sugar levels spike then crash.
- Try keeping healthy snacks to hand if you find it easier to eat smaller meals across the day.
- Choose foods which are high in protein such as lean meats, fish, yogurt and eggs or those high in good fats such as nuts, seeds or hummus dip.