I think we can all agree that stress is bad. Excess stress can cause headaches, muscle tension, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, depression, and now new research shows it may also wreak havoc on metabolism.
We’ve known for some time that stress is connected to weight gain, because a high level of the stress hormone cortisol has been shown to up appetite, drive cravings for “junk” food, and make it oh so much easier to accumulate belly fat. But now, an Ohio State study shows that stress may also result in burning fewer calories—yikes!
In the study, researchers questioned women about stress they had encountered the previous day. The ladies were then fed a meal containing a very generous 930 calories and 60 grams of fat. After eating, scientists measured the womens’ metabolic rates and took blood samples. In the seven hours after eating the mondo meal, those who had reported being stressed out within the previous 24 hours burned less of the fat they consumed, and had higher levels of insulin, a hormone that contributes to fat storage. They also torched 104 fewer calories. That may not sound like much, but it’s enough of a difference to account for a weight gain of almost 11 pounds in one year’s time.
I understand that reports like this can be discouraging, but knowing this info actually offers a huge advantage. Even if you can’t fix the causes of your stress, you can make small changes to offset the effects. Here are five daily tweaks to help you beat stress-induced weight gain.
Choose your fats wisely
If stress causes your body to burn less of the fat you eat (making it more likely to be stored) aim to include some healthy fat in your meal—but avoid “doubling up.” For example, many clients tell me they order a healthy salad for lunch, but the toppings include both olive oil and avocado. Or they might snack on nuts alongside popcorn that’s been cooked in oil. I’m not saying you should eat low-fat meals: fat is important for satiety and it’s one of your body’s key building blocks. But to keep it in balance, choose only one high-fat item per meal. For example, if you want avocado on your salad, dress your greens with balsamic vinegar rather than an oil-based vinaigrette.
RELATED: A Guide to Healthy Fats
Adjust your meal proportions
If there’s a chance that you’ll burn fewer calories in the hours after eating due to stress, shift your servings a bit to slash calories without having to eat less food. For example, eating one and a half cups of mixed veggies and a half cup of brown rice instead of one cup of each can save you 60-75 calories. Or instead of 1 cup of quinoa, mix half of that with half a cup of spinach to save about 100 calories. I think you see where I’m going with this—trading in a portion of your dense grains, even healthy ones, for low cal, fiber- and water-rich veggies is the easiest way to accomplish a quick calorie savings that doesn’t require sacrificing volume.
Add metabolic boosters
Certain foods truly have been shown in research to raise your metabolic rate, and while the effects aren’t astronomical, they may just counter some stress-induced metabolism slumps. One of my favorite natural metabolic boosters is hot peppers. One study from Purdue University tracked 25 adults who consumed either no pepper, their preferred amount (half liked spicy food and half did not), or a standardized amount, which was about a half teaspoon of cayenne for six weeks. Overall both groups burned more calories when they ate spiced-up meals, and those who had been infrequent eaters of fiery food also felt less hungry and experienced fewer cravings for salty, fatty, and sweet treats. Try adding chili pepper or cayenne to steamed or sautéed veggies, or if you can handle a little more heat, garnish your dishes with a sliced jalapeno. Bonus: hot peppers have also been shown to boost immunity and lower cholesterol.
Breathe before you eat
We continuously breathe without thinking about it, but recent Spanish research showed that relaxed, controlled breathing can effectively reduce cortisol levels. Before each meal, take a few minutes to sit comfortably in a chair, and spend a few minutes focusing on breathing, slowly and deeply, in through your nose and out through your mouth. You may be amazed how quickly this technique can help relieve muscle tension and shift your mindset.
Take a quick post-meal walk
Whenever possible, try to build in a brisk 15-minute stroll after meals. A recent study from George Washington University found that this habit helped normalize blood sugar levels for up to three hours after eating. Can’t fit in 15 minutes? Go for 10, even five—just breaking a sitting pattern and getting your blood pumping can shift your metabolism. A post-meal walk can also serve as a little “you time” to unwind, clear your head, connect with nature, or catch up with a walking buddy—all of which can help reduce feelings of stress.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.