Calories in must equal less than calories out. That has long been the mantra of weight loss. But what if those numbers don't add up? What if you follow the calorie restricted diet and your weight doesn't budge?
While you should follow this first law of thermodynamics, it oversimplifies how our bodies work. It fails to take into account three of the most significant missing links that also affect our weight and drive up our set point, stress, exercise and sleep. In addition to our food choices, these factors influence many hormones and chemicals that control our metabolism and body composition.
Stress has become a common part of our lives. Many of us are familiar with reaching for comfort foods when we're under stress. Why are we driven to do so?
The first reason is intuitive. Chronic stress is unpleasant. It can even cause depression. Comfort foods which release, dopamine, reward our brain with pleasure. Reaching for comfort food is a way of self-medication against the negative feelings that come with chronic stress, but there's a more physiological link between craving comfort food and stress. Under stress, the brain releases hormones via the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal pathway.
This pathway causes adrenal glands to release cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Cortisol tells our body to fuel up for a challenge, to prepare to fight or flee in case we encounter a bear. It drives us towards seeking quick energy carbs and calorie dense foods, but there's no bear or need to escape in our modern world. Instead, we pack on the unused calories. High fat and high sugar foods also dampen our stress response.
Dopamine released from eating these foods happens to be a stress recovery chemical. It down-regulates the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal pathway to turn off the stress response and bring the body back to its pre-stress balance. So, we're driven to eat comfort food under stress not only to soothe ourselves against the negative feelings of stress, but also to chemically dial down or stress response.
Stress via cortisol further thwarts weight loss by creating a vicious cycle of weight gain. In combination with other hormones including insulin and NPY, cortisol causes fat from other areas of the body to redistribute as belly fat, a possible reason being that deep belly or visceral fat is more readily converted to energy than fat in the thighs or buttocks. Visceral fat however is an organ. It releases hormones and chemicals that cause inflammation and insulin resistance. In turn, these compounds further promote weight gain, fat accumulation and arising set point.
The damaging effects of stress occur not from being exposed to stress, but in proportion to how we respond to stress. Having skills and tools for managing stress is an integral part of preventing and controlling weight over the long term. That doesn't mean you need to eliminate stress from your life. Stress is inescapable and avoiding it is not always in your control. Instead, you can work on getting better at handling stress. Fortunately, there are specific proven habits and behaviors any person can learn to get better at stress.
Numerous studies on people who are resilient, who can physiologically buffer the stress hormones to an ideal range indicate that they share these characteristics in common. Optimism, we can learn to perceive stressful situations in a productive way, as a challenge rather than a threat. Gratitude, practicing being thankful for what you have by expressing thankfulness and appreciating the simple gifts in life or the beauty in nature can reduce your cortisol level. Nurturing, supportive and trusting relationships.
Empathy and support causes to release the cuddle hormone, oxytocin, which dampens our stress response. Finding a sense of purpose and meaning. Doing so can help you sail easier through life's daily ups and downs. There are many other ways we can make stress work in our favor rather than wreak havoc on our hormones. The important thing to remember is that managing weight involves far more than balancing calories.
You need to create a lifestyle that balances your hormones, which then naturally balances your weight.