If you’re like most people trying to lose weight, you’re likely working hard at it. And even though hard work is generally considered to be admirable and effective, when it comes to weight loss, you might be putting yourself at an unexpected disadvantage. That’s because “hard working” often means highly stressed, and when we’re in a heightened state of tension, anxiety, push, shove, force or fear – our metabolism changes rather dramatically.
Have you ever had the experience where you’ve gone on vacation, eaten much more than usual, and lost weight? About one out of five people I’ve polled answered this question in the affirmative. Others will say they ate significantly more food, yet maintained the same weight. According to the old paradigm of nutrition, this is impossible at best -or else it’s a miracle. But to our new understanding about digestion and metabolism, the reason for this weight loss is simple to understand. While on vacation many of us do something that is highly unusual for us. We relax. We move from chronic sympathetic dominance to a parasympathetic state. Our frame of mind changes our metabolism to such a degree that we can eat more, yet lose weight.
Yvonne, a graduate student, told this story “I went to Italy for a semester and really let myself go with food. I got off my diet and lived it up. I ate bread, cheese, desserts, gelato, creamy everything, and lots of pasta. I could hardly believe it, but I lost eight pounds while I was there.”
Arthur, a contractor, had this to say. “I went to a resort in Jamaica for a couple of weeks. I was exhausted from a job and I deserved a break. I ate a lot, drank a lot, slept on the beach, and I think I might have taken a walk. My wife still talks about how I lost seven pounds on the ‘hedonist diet.’”
Ella works on a sailing ship half the year on Nantucket and the other half in the Virgin Islands. She noticed that whenever she arrived in the Virgin Islands she’d lose around fifteen pounds within a month, without any change in diet or exercise. Can you guess what made the difference? Not only did she love the Virgin Islands more than Nantucket, she also realized that she felt more attractive on the islands. “The men native to the Virgin Islands don’t care how big you are. They actually prefer large women. On Nantucket I don’t get much attention from men. When I get to the islands, the men think I’m hot. I never worry about calories there, and I eat whatever I want and enjoy it. I’m a completely different person and my metabolism totally changes.”
The point, of course, is not to reach for absolutely everything you want to eat or take more vacations in the Virgin Islands. The point is that many of us need to let go and live because we’ll relax more and metabolize better.
The scientifically documented connection between weight gain and stress is rather compelling. Numerous clinical studies have shown that conditions with high cortisol production are strongly associated with fat accumulation. That’s because one of cortisol’s chemical responsibilities is to signal the body to store fat and not build muscle.
Recall that cortisol is the key hormone released in significant quantities during acute and chronic stress. Rats and monkeys experimentally subjected to stress will initially show elevated cortisol levels followed by weight gain. This occurs despite the fact that they’re eating a normal amount of food. Indeed, many people complain that even though they’re eating a lower-calorie diet and exercising more, they still can’t lose weight. More often than not, stress is the reason. This is especially the case for those who experience weight gain around the midsection, as excess cortisol production has the interesting effect of fattening up the belly.
So if you’re the kind of person who seems to be doing everything right for weight loss but are stuck on the same plateau, ask yourself about stress. Do you live a hurried life? Are you eating at warp speed? Does your job require that you live in a state of fight or flight? If so, then no amount of calorie counting or treadmilling will get you where you want to go. Your task is to do something of the greatest possible difficulty. Relax. Stop producing so much cortisol. Take a deep breath into your life, be a little more peaceful, and give your calories a chance to burn.
Chronic stress can also increase the output of insulin, another hormone strongly associated with weight gain. The pancreas produces insulin whenever there is a rapid rise in blood sugar. One of the ways that insulin lowers blood glucose is by telling the body to aggressively store excess dietary carbohydrates as fat. Insulin also signals the body not to release any stored fat. Chronic stress and its attendant insulin output is especially problematic in a condition known as insulin resistance, in which blood-sugar levels remain elevated despite increased insulin output due to an unresponsiveness of target cells for this hormone. Couple this with the typical high-carbohydrate snacks we consume when feeling anxious and unloved and we pave the way for quick and easy weight gain. When it comes to weight loss, then, it is as important to relax and count our blessings as it is to count our calories.
So imagine yourself worrying about your weight, following a forced and flaccid diet, and convinced of your unworthiness to exist if you can’t shrink your body down to some perfect size. These self-perpetuated messages will literally put you in a state of chronic low-level stress. Though you’re consuming less calories by dieting, you’re producing more cortisol and insulin, which are signaling your body to gain weight. In medical terms, stress decreases “thermic efficiency” —your ability to burn calories and metabolize stored fat.
The bottom line is this.
Worrying about fat increases fat. Anxiety about weight loss can cause your body to put fat on and retain it.
Many people use anxiety and stress to motivate themselves to lose weight. For example, “If I don’t lose eight pounds for the party, I won’t go,” or “I’ll never look good until I lose weight.” This self-chosen stress feels energizing because it produces such alertness hormones as adrenaline and noradrenaline. Over time though, these fight-or-flight hormones can diminish metabolism.Even though I’ve seen many extraordinary examples over the years, it still seems like magic when people share their stories of how relaxation transformed their bodies. Terry, a 55 year-old schoolteacher, lost 9 pounds in four weeks without changing anything she ate. Jody, a 31 year-old writer, lost 5 pounds in a week—the same “last five pounds” she was trying to take off for years—when she finally decided to stop obsessing about 5 silly pounds. Esther, age 48, was a long-term dieter who never really lost anything. After several months on a “no-diet” diet without any guilt or self-imposed rules she still didn’t lose anything—except guilt, fear, and dietary misery.
So the point is this: you don’t need to worry any more or punish yourself about food. It’s totally counterproductive to stress yourself out about weight loss because that same stress can cause you to put weight on.
What’s your favorite way to invite a relaxed state of mind to the table?
My warmest regards,
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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