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Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH

Pew Foundation Scholar in Nutrition and Metabolism
Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine
University of Maryland
Baltimore, MD

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woman eating while stressed

Stress and Weight Gain

10 tips to avoid an expanding waistline


Life in the 21st century seems programmed for stress. We juggle work and family life under the umbrella of pervasive stress generated by current world events. We squeeze every minute out of each day to meet commitments. We push ourselves to reach our goals. Our fast-forward lives bombard us with stress from all angles

Stress can (and does) wreak havoc with your mind, body and spirit. Chronic, long-term stress -- or 'toxic stress', is any form of stress that you perceive as being relentless and out of control. But it's also "toxic" in terms of what it does to our bodies.

When stress hits, different brain chemicals are released to help our bodies handle the physical response. One of those chemicals, cortisol, or stress hormone, is a powerful appetite "trigger." No wonder you find yourself mindlessly standing at the kitchen counter foraging for food or gazing into the refrigerator after a long, hard day full of endless responsibilities.

Scientific research now shows that when you allow toxic stress to permeate your daily life, triggering the release of appetite-stimulating cortisol, the extra calories you mindlessly consume are converted to fat deposits that gravitate to one area of your body - your waistline. Fat deposits around the abdomen are associated with life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer. I call this 'toxic weight'. Toxic stress leads to toxic weight when chronically high levels of cortisol actually stimulate the fat cells inside the abdomen to fill with more fat. As you age, your expanding waistline can be life threatening!

To avoid gaining toxic pounds, you want to keep cortisol under control, below the appetite-stimulating threshold in your body. There is a safety valve for stress relief. Ten simple strategies for meal planning and timing can turn back toxic weight and put you back in control. Here's how:

1. Make sure to eat a healthy breakfast no later than 9 a.m. even if it means placing a bowl of oatmeal on your dressing table to eat while you put on your makeup.

2. Eat a small midmorning snack approximately three hours after your breakfast. This could be a piece of fruit, a small fat-free yogurt, or one or two pieces of low-fat string cheese. The only exception is if three hours after your breakfast is lunchtime.

3. Try not to eat lunch later than 1:30 p.m. Lunch should include a healthy balance of High/Quality/Low-Stress protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

4. Three hours after lunch is usually the beginning of the CortiZone. At this time, it is imperative to eat food that provides you with High-Quality/Low Stress energy at a time of day when you are becoming hungry and fatigued. Combinations of protein and carbohydrates are ideal. This includes low-fat or fat-free yogurt or cottage cheese, along with a piece of fruit.

5. Dinner should be started anywhere from 6 to 7:30 p.m. It should include soup or salad, vegetables, and a source of protein, such as poultry, lean red meat, fish, legumes, or veggie burger. Mixed fruit could be served as a dessert item.

6. Try to have dinner completed by 8 p.m. My favorite saying is that if "you eat after eight, you gain a lot of weight!" Try to finish eating dinner before eight o'clock at least four to five days per week. If you must eat dinner after eight, eat lighter and eat before you go to dinner.

7. Women over the age of forty do not require dense complex carbohydrates (pasta, bread, potatoes, or rice) after 5 p.m. These foods are rich fuel sources and should be consumed in moderation, primarily during the day. At dinnertime these starches should be considered as occasional treats (once or twice a week, in small portions). The goal is to debulk your dinner of the dense calories from complex carbohydrates. These foods, which were once considered a staple, should now be an infrequent dinner treat.

8. Dispose of all fat-free desserts and snack items in your kitchen. They are riddled with Low-Quality/High Stress refined, processed sugars.

9. Typical restaurant portions are man-sized. At lunchtime, remember to eat only half of any restaurant portion of starch and try to eliminate it at dinner. At lunch, one piece of bread from the bread basket is appropriate. At dinner, hand the bread basket back to the waiter. Remember: the later you eat complex carbohydrates, the more weight you gain.

10. Water should be consumed throughout the day. Often when we think we're hungry, we're actually thirsty. Eight eight-ounce glasses should be drunk during the course of the day.

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