Influence of Hormones on Weight Gain
According to Dr Pamela Peeke, assistant clinical professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and author of Fight Fat After Forty, comfort eating during stressful moments - which tend to be many - is one of the main reasons our waistlines expand.
According to Professor Peeke, Whenever we're angry, scared, anxious, or tense, the brain produces cortisol and adrenaline: hormones specifically designed to incite the fight-or-flight response that was once crucial to our survival. 'Adrenaline's main role is to make you alert and focused, with exceptional concentration and memory,' says Peeke. She adds that cortisol also helps increase heart and respiratory rates and getting your muscles tensed and ready.
While those physiological processes worked well for our prehistoric ancestors, they're not as useful in a world where physical dangers are few. The trouble is, whenever we're stressed these hormones are released into your system. Though adrenaline levels plummet as the stress subsides, cortisol remains in the body much longer. Since, physiologically speaking, your body thinks you've run a mile or two or done something active in response to the 'threat', the hormone sends signals to refuel the body as soon as possible. It's a biological green light to indulge in foods loaded with carbs and fat that leads to weight gain in the chronically stressed. It's a vicious cycle of stress, followed by elevated cortisol, followed by that scone you don't need.
What's even more worrisome is the type of weight gain this cycle encourages. Cortisol, along with adrenaline, travels to the body's fat cells, allowing them to open and release fat - what the body knows as fuel - into the bloodstream, to the liver and then to the muscles to use as energy.
Toxic Abdominal Weight
In an interesting twist, Peeke's research has found that fat cells deep inside the belly are especially good at attracting cortisol. Simply put, the cascade of responses caused by stress encourages the accumulation of excess 'stress fat', the layer of fat below the abdominal muscle. 'This creates "toxic weight" - or extra fat inside the abdomen - which is the only type of fat on the body associated with death,' she says. She adds that this type of fat has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, cancer and diabetes.
Midlife Weight Gain
So how to break the vicious cycle of midlife weight gain and stress? Peeke suggests, among other things, a combination of healthy eating, regular exercise and stress management techniques.
Reduce Processed Foods
One of the best ways to combat stress and anxiety is to eat foods that give you long-lasting energy, such as whole grains. Peeke advises avoiding foods that release sugar into the bloodstream too quickly, such as highly processed foods made with white, refined sugars and white starches - pasta, white rice, potatoes, and white bread. These increase the amount of insulin, another hormone that plays an important role in weight gain and appetite. In fact, Peeke calls elevated cortisol and elevated insulin levels a 'lethal duo' that creates an insatiable appetite for carbohydrates and fat.