Stress Is Sabotaging Your Waistline

17th June 2016

Feeling stressed makes us hungry for all the wrong foods – and that’s seriously bad news in our constant quest for modern, healthy living.

So what can we do? Dr Sally Norton advises…

We’ve all done it. Mindlessly wolfed down a triple by-pass burger and chips in front of the computer as we try to meet a work deadline. Or polished off a tub of cookie dough ice cream after hearing bad news.

Finding comfort in food is very human. And the trouble is, the more indulgently sweet, salty or fatty it is, the more rewarding we find it – and the more we crave it. It may even help us feel better – at least for a minute or two, until the guilt and discomfort creeps in… which means that high-pressure lifestyles are bad news.

What’s more, studies suggest that stress isn’t just a state of mind – it triggers chemical changes in the body that can have long-lasting potentially damaging effects on health, too.

In stressful situations, our brain signals that we are under threat and floods our body with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

At first, whatever the situation, we may be too busy fire-fighting to think about food – part of the body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response to danger – but if stress goes on, or remains high, cortisol hangs round in the body long after any initial adrenalin rush is over, and tells us to stock up on energy rich foods.

A study last year showed that after a challenging morning meeting, or an interaction with an upset client, workers were more likely to go for that extra chocolate bar at lunch.

It’s the brain’s attempt to balance out the physical and mental demands of stress. And where better to get that rush of energy and pleasure than salty, sweet and high-fat foods?…

…which is all well and good if we have used up a lot of energy dealing with a physical challenge. But not so good if we’re slumped in our chair, stressing over a work deadline or worrying how we’re going to pay the mortgage.

As if this wasn’t enough, cortisol can actually affect how fat is distributed around our bodies. And unfortunately, in health and weight terms, it builds up in the very worst place – not underneath the skin, but more centrally around our middles.

Not only does this make it harder to shift (fat stored for the long haul!), it raises our chances of health problems such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

And that’s not even mentioning other knock on effects of too much stress. We all know that when our stress levels are high we’re more likely to feel anxious and experience disrupted sleep. This can be a further drain on our willpower – and more encouragement to indulge in comfort eating.

So if this is something our bodies are naturally programmed to do, what’s the answer? The obvious one is to lead a less stressful life. This isn’t always easy, of course, without a major overhaul of our lifestyles so a better option is to change the way we respond to stress…

There are many ways to do this, but if you turn to food whenever you are stressed, here’s one for starters. Next time you feel under pressure and you have an all-consuming desire for a double-chocolate brownie, try this to stop you in your tracks and relax you at the same time.

Before you give into your craving, step back and press the pause button. Tell yourself to wait for five minutes – or if that feels too hard, start with one minute. You’re not saying you must deny your craving (there’s nothing like a ban to trigger an all-out binge!) –you’re simply telling yourself to hold on for a minute or so to see if you might be able to deal with your stress in a different way.

Now move away from temptation and do something relaxing. Take a walk outside, listen to your favourite music or get some sunshine on your face. Or find somewhere quiet to sit and do some slow breathing exercises.

The nature of cravings is that they go in a wave, so use this time out as a way to ride this one through.

While you’re doing this, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Can you feel your stress levels going down? Even if you end up eating, you should find it easier to go for a healthier option.

Continue to ride your cravings through in this way – taking the opportunity to do something pleasurable and relaxing that doesn’t involve food – and you’ll not only feel more relaxed, you’ll break the habit of comfort eating. Which is good for your health, your wellbeing – and of course your waistline.

Dr Sally Norton is an NHS weight loss consultant & surgeon, UK health expert, and founder of

Find Your Local