Stress and Weight Gain – Top 5 Tips

Stress, everyone gets stressed out at times and sometimes a little bit of stress or pressure is a good thing (how many people are their most productive when a project deadline is looming?). That bit of extra pressure gives you an adrenaline rush which gives you an extra energy boost which is a good thing. However, if you don’t relieve the pressure and relax afterwards you’re going to be in a constant state of tension and pressure and general stress, which is not a good thing!

Some people don’t seem to get stressed out at all ,while others (of which I definitely am one), seem to get stressed out pretty easily! For some people getting stressed out can lead to a reduced appetite whereas for others it can lead to overeating (me again…). The work-stress scenario tends to go a bit like this; go to work, be put under pressure, get stressed out, get emotional, sacrifice the things you like to do because you “don’t have time”, passing up the morning coffee break, eating lunch at your desk or not having lunch, becoming less social, reaching for sugar and chocolate to get an energy boost, secret snacking, no time to cook and getting a takeaway, no time to exercise and watching TV instead, having a glass of wine to relax, “treating yourself” after a tough day, worrying at night and not being able to sleep.

Everyone’s different but for a lot of people who gain weight from stress it’s due to over-eating or eating the wrong things and becoming less active in response to the stress. We want to relax, to feel good, to reward ourselves. For a lot of people, food has an emotional attachment and we often try to use food to feed our emotions. If I’m happy I’ll treat myself with food, if I’m sad I’ll use food as a comfort, if I’m stressed I’ll use food to relax, if I’m tired I’ll use food to wake me up – I think you can see a bit of a trend!

For me, and for a lot of people, it can take a huge amount of effort and self-control to consciously watch what you eat 24/7. It can be hard to intentionally deny yourself something that you know will give you instant satisfaction. It’s an evolutionary thing hard-wired into our brains. So when you’re stressed out and angry and generally feeling sorry for yourself, how are you supposed to control your impulses and deny yourself? I think that this is where so many people struggle.

It’s certainly where I struggled over the last few months. Last September I went out on my first dietetics hospital placement for 14 weeks. This week I go out on my second, more intense placement and I’m terrified! Firstly it’s just generally stressful. You’re in a big hospital, you’re the newbie who hasn’t a clue what they’re doing (or at least feel like you know nothing!), you’re being supervised and scrutinized 24/7 and are trying to make a good impression so can never really relax. You’re being quizzed and tested all the time and them in the evening it’s off home to do forms and prepare for the next day. While it’s enjoyable, and I learned loads, I did find it stressful.

Over the 14 weeks months I ended up putting on about 8 pounds (and have struggled to lose it) but I’m adamant that I won’t do the same again! Looking back now I can see why it happened, and the reasons for it are probably the same as so many other people in stressful jobs or with busy lives (which is most people nowadays!):

  1. I ate with my emotions

I was stressed out 24/7. I was worried I wasn’t good enough or making a good impression. I was upset that I was stressed out. I was angry that I was stressed out etc. etc. I’m  a bit of a perfectionist so even though everything was going well and I was doing fine I just overthought everything and built it up in my head. My solution for this was to eat, and obviously sugary foods, treats and carbohydrate foods like bread, potato, pasta etc. are what you go for when you’re stressed. This is because these foods make the brain release serotonin which makes us feel calmer and more relaxed. However, this didn’t really solve my issues did it? At least not in the long term. For the last few months I’ve tried to look at people who just don’t seem to get stressed out, and see how they do it. They just seem to have a different attitude and think “well if I don’t get this work done, or f it isn’t perfect it’s not the end of the world, what’s the worst that can happen?”. They just don’t seem to sweat the small stuff and it’s an attitude I’ve tried to adapt over the last few months. Obviously I still get stressed out but then I have to actually remind myself to just think “what’s the point of worrying? What’s the worst thing that can happen?”. When you’re not stressed out 24/7 you won’t need food to comfort you. But I think that you really have to be aware of your stress and what you use to cope and then consciously try to avoid doing that.

Tip for emotional eating: Keep a food diary. In general, food diaries are a fantastic weight loss tool but a good trick if you know you are an emotional eater is the add the heading “how was I feeling when I ate this“. This is especially good for snacks. An example could be:

Food: Snickers Bar

Where: In the car on the way home from work, stuck in traffic.

How was I feeling/why did I eat this: Angry that I was stuck in traffic and stressed out from work because of project deadline.

Try see if there’s a pattern between your emotions and what you eat. This can be really tough for some people but I guarantee you it’s a brilliant tool when done right! Be honest with yourself. I actually keep a food diary myself and recently bought this one on Amazon – it already has a “why did I eat his” heading written in so is a really good reminder!

2. I lost self-discipline

Usually I’m really self-motivated and if I want something I’ll sacrifice time and effort to get it. I have to try extra hard with food because I love it so much and it always pains me to pass up on treats or chocolate but I know it’s not healthy to be having it every day (treats once in a while are whole different story!). When I’m eating healthy I really do make an effort. However, when I’m stressed I just don’t want to make the effort and I’ll go for what’s easy and satisfying. One of my biggest downfalls on placement were the 11am scones and coffee (which were sometimes free or heavily subsidized making it harder to pass up!). Irish scones are undeniably delicious but also undeniably calorific. One scone with butter and jam could be 600 calories! Putting this into perspective, a chocolate bar is about 230kcal and a sandwich would be about 400kcal. 600kcal for a morning “snack” is madness yet every morning in the hospitals the smell of scones would waft down the corridor to the canteen and became too difficult to resist. Then once it became a habit I couldn’t stop and just thought well sure it’s only a scone and everyone else is having one. A scone that has more calories that my dinner or is the same as 4 dairy milks calories wise!!! It’s madness and is one of the things I credit for my weight gain!

Tip: It’s hard to cut a habit like having a scone every morning but it’s small changes that make a big difference over time. Some people might want to go cold turkey and just stop having the scone altogether – a good alternative snack would be a yoghurt and piece of fruit. However, others might like to try splitting the scone with someone else. Or maybe cutting out the butter and jam at first. Then over time, if you want you could stop having it altogether and have a healthier snack. Do what you feel would work for you and what you think you could manage as that will be much more effective in the long term.

3. I stopped exercising

I love exercising. However, I still always have that internal struggle in my mind before going to the gym of whether I’m actually going to get up and put on my gym gear or not. If I’m busy I will 100% rationalize with myself that getting extra work done is a better use of my time or else that I’m just so tired that I deserve to skip the gym! Why does my mind work like this!? I know that exercise releases feel good hormones, I know that I’m super sensitive to them, I know that it relaxes me and I feel good after and I know that it’s good for my health – but it’s just. so. much. easier. not. to. The effort of getting my gear on, going to the gym, showering, drying my hair, getting home and then making dinner seems like a lot…But the benefits are worth every bit of effort and I just have to keep reminding myself that it works for me!

Just look at how happy I am! 😉

Tip: Find something you like to do – whether it’s going for a walk, doing a workout at home, doing weights in the gym, joining a group class, yoga, a team sport, dancing or whatever it is, pick something you like to do and that gets your heart rate up. The recommended minimum target is 150 minutes a week of exercise (75 minutes if it’s vigorous exercise). Schedule it into your diary as you would an appointment and push yourself to get it done. It’s OK if you miss a session or two but try not to make it a habit. Pick a time of day that works for you i.e. before work, lunchtime, after work or at night. Have your workout clothes packed the night before and ready beside the bed or in the car for after work. The more prepared you are and the less excuses you have, the less likely you will be to back out last minute. It might take a while to get into a routine so go easy on yourself! You’re doing this for your mind and body so if you miss a session here and there it’s OK!

4. I was unprepared

Firstly, I was unprepared for how stressful placement would be. Secondly, I was unprepared for the amount of travelling, getting home late, doing the shopping and cooking, getting clothes washed and ready while doing forms at night – basically adjusting from being a student with a few hours of lectures to actual normal adult life.

I think that one of the first things that suffers when people get busy is food. It’s just so easy to grab a ready-meal or order a takeaway if you’re short on time but the amount of calories and salt in them is way too much to be having on a regular basis. The easiest way to avoid this is to have your meals for the week planned or prepared in advance. Now you don’t have to meal prep all 21 meals and snacks for the week on Sunday night! But rather decide what you’re having for breakfast (usually people have the same thing every morning so that’s easy!). Pick your snacks – fruit, yoghurt, small handful of nuts, rice cakes and peanut butter or hummus are all great options – no 600kcal scones! Lunch – this was another of my downfalls…it got to the stage where I was buying subsidized “lunches” in the hospitals which were actually dinners and then I was going home and having a second dinner.

My plan for the next 14 weeks is to go back to bringing homemade salads and sandwiches for lunch (I’ll put up more recipes as I go). I’m usually pretty good for making homemade dinners, because I like cooking. However I think my main downfall was my portion size, especially of carbohydrates. While carbohydrate is an essential nutrient, we generally eat way too much of it. A portion of rice, pasta or potatoes at dinner should be about the size of a disposable plastic cup or clenched fist (unless you’re very active and you’ll need more). The rest of your plate should be loaded up with vegetables and a protein source (e.g. meat/tofu/legumes) the size of your palm.

Tip: If you don’t like grocery shopping why not shop online and get it delivered? If you don’t like cooking or don’t want to cook every night then find recipes you can cook in bulk once or twice a week and then freeze in individual portions. Microwaveable frozen vegetables are super handy as is microwavable rice. Having a few quick and east recipes like omelettes or stir-fries can come in really handy too! It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on your portion size and use smaller plates (it makes it feel like you are eating more. If you really hate cooking and can afford it then there are lots of companies that will cook and deliver all your meals to you!

5. I stopped doing things I enjoy

When the stress piles up and people get busy they tend to stop doing things that they usually enjoy and that help them relax. For example, you might stop taking your morning coffee break or start eating lunch at your desk. You might stop going to the gym or a night class or a club or something you used to do in the evening because “you don’t have time”. Work takes over and we sacrifice everything else. If it’s just for a few particularly busy weeks fine, but if it’s long term what’s the point? Life isn’t just about work – unless you love it and then that’s fine! For me, I got so busy that I told myself I didn’t have time to blog anymore. I kept posting on social media but I’d say I posted one, maybe two blog posts, even though I love writing. What benefit did that have? None and I feel like my blog suffered for that which is annoying. I think again it comes down to being prepared and actually scheduling in time for doing things, otherwise when are you going to actually do the things you want to do?

Tip: Pick up an old hobby that you used to have or start something completely new. Whether it’s a sport, art, music, travel, language, crafts, blogging, reading, writing -whatever it is make time for yourself to do it. Having a hobby that you can lose yourself in and forget about the stress of life and work is therapeutic and is one step you can take to actually solving your stress issues at the root, rather than just temporarily treating it.

People talk about stress hormones making us put on weight but really it’s not the hormones making us fat its what we do in response to the hormones! Some of these hormones such as cortisol can make up hungrier and lead to over-eating but once we’re aware of this we can consciously try to make better choices or take steps to reduce our stress levels – not that it’s easy but we can try!

*I know one person who is particularly stress-free so I asked them to give me their top 3 tips for stress-free living!

  1. Learn to let things go. Don’t let things get to you or fester away in your head, espeically if it’s something someone said that annoyed you – they did say to add in that it’s way easier said than done!
  2. Don’t hang around people that bring you down. If somebody’s saying stuff that gets to you or make you feel bad then why spend time on or with hat person?
  3. Do the things you want to do and don’t do the things you don’t want to do. Don’t feel pressured into doing things and be yourself.

So there you go! My top tips for dealing with stress associated weight gain! These are most definitely easier said than done but I always think that weight loss and eating healthier comes down to creating healthier habits and routines – and those things take a lot of time and effort but in the end they last a lifetime.  If you do feel particularly overwhelmed and stressed out then talking to someone about how you’re feeling or seeing your G.P. can really help. For more information on stress and coping with stress check out this article.



1 Comment

  1. April 4, 2017 / 12:28 pm

    Brilliant post Aisling and I can completely relate to the stress, comfort eating and stopping doing things I enjoy! You’re so right that we feel better exercising and eating right but still reach for the chocolate because it’s easier. Glad you’re back posting 🙂