61% of Americans gained an average of 29lbs during the pandemic. 10% gained more than 50lbs. Losing those pandemic pounds isn’t just about using up the calories we are eating because stress (continued pandemic stress) gets in the way.
According to Dr. Mani Kukreja (MD, MPH, IIN), “Stress provokes a vicious cycle that makes people gain weight. You’ve eaten, but since you’re stressed, the sugar goes to the wrong place. It goes into your blood, not into your cells, so you feel tired. The cells are deprived of energy, so they send the signal to the brain that they’re hungry. So the brain tells the body to eat again!”
I was able to ask Dr. Mani Kukreja more about how to break out of the Hunger Cycle and lose pandemic pounds in the below interview.
How does stress make us gain weight?
Stress plays a critical role in weight gain when it begins to affect our appetite. For instance, in the brain, the hypothalamus is responsible for controlling hunger and satiety. During stressful times, high levels of cortisol (also commonly known as the “stress hormone”) are released from our Adrenal glands.
The increased amount of cortisol production consequently results in an increased blood sugar level, which kickstarts our body’s natural fight or flight responses. Chronic stress leads to a gradual increase in cortisol and glucose production. Over time, the pancreas begins to struggle to keep up with our body’s high demand for insulin, which leads to a higher risk of developing insulin resistance – or Diabetes Mellitus.
When insulin is not able to keep up with our high demands for sugar, our glucose levels in the blood remain high. In turn, our cells do not get the optimal sugar they need to function properly or to create energy for our bodies.
Subsequently, when cellular needs for glucose are not met, our body begins to feel tired and fatigued and crave energy in the form of sugary, fatty, “comfort foods.” Over time, this cycle of overeating or “stress eating,” is gradually formed, and we begin to notice a fluctuation or increase in our weight.
This specific category of weight gain is always troubling to me as an MD. As previously mentioned, stress eating affects blood sugar levels, which means it affects insulin production levels in the long run. Insulin is also known as a “fat-storing” hormone, so this is why we commonly see stress eaters with high levels of fat in their midsection area.
Not only is this fat stubborn and hard to work off, but this visceral fat tends to lead to a higher risk of developing many chronic metabolic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimers.
Moreover, people who are stressed also tend to have irregular or unhealthy sleep schedules, which can lead to a loss of motivation or depleted energy levels, regardless of the amount of time they sleep overall. Ultimately, this loss of motivation makes it difficult for highly stressed individuals to be active and exercise consistently.
Stress eaters will also begin to notice that their weight gain can be rapid. Because of the sudden or dramatic change to our body image, some stress eaters can develop symptoms of anxiety or depression. These individuals may even begin to drink more alcohol as a coping mechanism. All of these factors ultimately contribute to weight gain caused by stress.
What is the Hunger Cycle?
The hunger cycle is complex and involves a variety of different hormones that constantly work in sync with our brains.
Ghrelin is secreted when your stomach is empty prior to eating a meal. It works by sending signals to the hypothalamus in your brain. Ghrelin tells the brain that you are hungry, and will keep nagging until you ultimately give your body the food to satietate. The issue here is ensuring that you have access to healthier food options – if you are surrounded by unhealthy foods, the likelihood of making less-than-ideal food choices increases.
On the other hand, Leptin, a hormone created by your body’s fat cells, works to suppress cravings. Leptin regulates your energy and sends signals to your brain to let it know that you are full. Leptin is secreted in sync with fat cells. So when fat mass increases, leptin levels rise and in turn, hunger is decreased. Over time, individuals will notice weight loss will occur.
Ultimately, the more fat you have in your diet, the greater the amount of leptin you have in your blood, which will help you maintain a normal, healthy weight.
This cycle also highlights one of the key reasons behind why dieting simply doesn’t work. Dieting ultimately perpetuates the hunger cycle. It makes you feel hungry, which causes the stomach to release ghrelin, as I previously mentioned.
Therefore, you should always be conscious of what foods you put in your body. Research suggests a healthy diet rich in protein, and good fats is optimal, as these two macronutrients will control our hunger hormones – ghrelin.
It is also important to prioritize a consistent sleep schedule. Research has proven that lack of sleep can gradually lower your leptin levels and increase the production of ghrelin, causing you to crave more carbs, sugar and salt.
What diet and wellness practices have proven results?
Your first priority should be to keep your ghrelin monster on its leash. Luckily, there are a few tricks we can use to accomplish this.
First, avoid extreme weight gain or loss. No more yo-yo diets! It might seem counterintuitive, but the best way to lose weight is not to try so aggressively. It’s easy to get over excited about working out, only to be sore for the next week. By taking this approach, many people become burnt out quickly and will quit working out almost as soon as they begin.
Instead, strive to maintain a stable, healthy weight by doing light exercise. My advice would be to start small and focus on being consistent with your physical activities. Then, work your way up to a more rigorous routine.
Next, prioritize eating nutritious, healthy meals consistently throughout the day. Include plenty of vegetables and a sizable amount of good fat, found in avocado, nuts, and olive oil. Avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar, avoid white bread, pasta, and fruit juices.
If you eat regular meals that are abundant in high levels of good fat, fiber and protein – including breakfast – then you will feel fuller longer.
To fully achieve this, your protein intake should make up around 30 percent of your daily calories. It is also important to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and to help you feel full.
Additionally, I would highly recommend paying attention to what you’re eating, while you’re eating. Nowadays it’s incredibly common, and tempting, to sit in front of a screen while we consume our meals. Clearly, this is an attempt to distract our minds from the everyday stress and chaos we may experience.
However, while this habit may feel like it is helping us, it’s actually quite counterproductive. In order for your body to know and understand that it is full, you should avoid all distractions during meals. Otherwise, you will ignore your brain and the signals it may try to send you when it’s time to stop eating.
You should also shorten the window of time during which you consume your meals throughout the day. For example, if your work schedule only allows you to eat from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., choosing to eat a large breakfast instead of eating a large lunch or dinner, would be the wisest choice.
This is due to the fact that anything you consume in the morning will always have an extended amount to digest throughout the course of the day. On the other hand, if you eat a large and heavy meal for dinner you most likely will not have enough time to digest the food properly. Therefore, the food is more likely to sit in your body and turn into fat.
It goes without saying, but try to find ways to manage your stress! We have already established that stress can be a major factor in the role of weight gain. Again, exercise may be a tremendous aid in managing stress levels. Even practicing yoga, breathing exercises and meditation can help. Plan activities with friends, socialize and try to go outside for fresh air and sunshine regularly. Remember, our physical health relies on our mental health. It’s important to give yourself a break when you feel overwhelmed.
Lastly, prioritize sleep. When we try to maintain a consistent and healthy sleep-cycle, it shows improvement in our metabolism, focus, energy and mood levels. When you sleep poorly, your body is likely to feel stressed and exhausted, prompting the secretion of cortisol which will inherently produce more ghrelin.
Overall, sustainability and consistency are the two most important things to remember when discussing stress-related weight gain. It is important to make impactful changes in your life that you will continue to practice over an extended period of time.
Inconsistency will never lead to healthy, sustainable results. Instead, be realistic when setting your goals. After all, the hardest step is deciding to make change happen. Once you are consistent, all of these tips and tricks will gradually become healthy habits over time.
Also, check out the 21 Day Immunity Reset, an online course that optimizes immunity in only three weeks.