When looking at weight and eating, there's lots of information available about the importance of healthy food and exercise. What is less commonly voiced is the role emotional stress plays not only in eating behavior, but also, in weight gain.
Dr. Dean Ornish, a visionary physician who has spread the message that "heart disease can be reversed through comprehensive lifestyle change,"1 notes that to lose weight and maintain weight, we need to work more deeply than with just what we eat and how we behave.
In "Why A High Protein Diet May Make You Fatter" by Kathy Freeston (see 1 below), Ornish notes, "The real epidemic in our country is not only obesity, but also depression, isolation and loneliness. As one patient told me, 'When I feel lonely and depressed, I eat a lot of fat. It fills the void. Fat coats my nerves and numbs the pain.'"
In this sense, we can both overeat when life is hard to swallow. And we can choose unhealthy foods to offer emotional comfort and soothing, since it may not be readily available in other, non-food-based ways.
Ornish points out that emotional stress plays a big role in weight gain, even beyond eating or overeating foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar.
1. Ornish notes that "chronic emotional stress stimulates your brain to release hormones that cause you to gain weight, especially around your belly where it's most harmful and least attractive." Long-term stress (which is sadly, defined as stress lasting 15 minutes or more) causes the body to produce cortisol, which contributes to stress-related eating and weight gain.
2. "Chronic stress also causes stimulation of hormones such as cytokines that promote inflammation." He notes that obesity itself causes a low-grade inflammation, "which in turn, tends to promote more obesity in a vicious cycle."
3. Because chronic emotional stress causes you to gain weight, using stress management tools may be necessary to lose weight and keep it off. So often, we ignore our emotional and spiritual needs, including our need for connection with self, a higher power and others. And when we lack connection, we feel a void. Meditation, mind-body tools and reaching out to others can fill the void with emotional, physical and spiritual nutrients not available in food.
It is important we pay attention to our emotional, spiritual and relational diet when looking at health and weight management. As we nourishing ourselves emotionally, spiritually and relationally, our bodies will response by generating oxytocin, the love or bonding hormone, and we will experience a greater sense of peace and well-being at all levels.
There is a lot of truth that when life is hard to swallow, we might really need a hug, a shoulder to cry on or a hand to food--not a bag of chips!
1 = From "Why A High Protein Diet May Make You Fatter" by Kathy Freston, AlterNet, March 18, 2010