They shouldn’t be, but the holidays are a particularly stressful time of year. Worrying about holiday weight gain sure doesn’t help. However, a heightened self-awareness when it comes to eating can reduce that holiday stress, as well as protect you from chronic illnesses any time of the year.
Reduce stress, lose weight
A more acute awareness of the mind and body when it comes to eating, combined with stress-reduction techniques, stemmed weight gain among a group of obese women without dieting, according to a recent study. In a report published in the “Journal of Obesity” by researchers at the University of California San Francisco, women in the study who reduced their stress the most also lost the most deep belly fat. Deep belly fat surrounding vital organs significantly increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
The benefits of mindfulness training
To reveal insights about how stress and the stress hormone cortisol are linked to eating behavior, obesity and cardiovascular health, UCSF researchers recruited a group of 47 women who were chronically stressed, overweight or obese. Instead of a calorie-counting diet, 24 of the women were enrolled in a regimen consisting solely of mindfulness training. The other 23 served as a control group.
The mindfulness training included nine weekly 2.5-hour sessions of instruction in stress reduction techniques, as well as training for more acute awareness of hunger, fullness and taste satisfaction. Week six featured a 7-hour silent meditation retreat. Participants were advised to set aside 30 minutes a day for meditation and to practice mindful eating on their own.
For the women undergoing mindfulness training, increased body awareness corresponded with reductions in stress, secretion of the stress hormone cortisol and belly fat. Those who had the greatest improvement in those areas had the greatest reductions in dangerous belly fat. For women in the control group, cortisol levels remained high and they continued to gain weight.
Stress reducing foods
In addition to becoming more self aware about eating, a nutritious diet can help you fight stress by strengthening your immune system and lowering blood pressure. Certain foods in particular are recognized for their stress reduction and stress management qualities. For example, a bowl of oatmeal, a complex carbohydrate, can reduce cortisol. Other complex carbs, such as whole grain cereals and breads, help stabilize blood sugar levels and stimulate the brain to secrete serotonin, a feel-good chemical.
Foods rich in vitamin C, such as oranges, can reduce cortisol levels and bolster the immune system. A magnesium deficiency can compound the effects of stress with headaches and fatigue. Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, as well as soybeans or fillet of salmon will boost magnesium levels. To prevent hypertension, get enough potassium. Half an avocado has more potassium than a medium-sized banana.
To help yourself recover from stress, pass on the coffee, which can increase cortisol levels and raise blood pressure. Enjoy some black tea instead. Research has shown that people who drink black tea have lower cortisol levels following a stressful event.
The ultimate stress buster
Other than changing the way you think about your body’s relationship with food this holiday season, exercise is the ultimate stress-busting strategy. Aerobic exercise increases oxygen circulation and produces endorphins, a one-two punch of enhanced well-being. Don’t let your hectic holiday schedule interfere with your exercise regimen. Make time for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times a week.