We look at how stress and nutrition are related, how stress can lead to over (or under) eating, the serious health issues you could develop due to prolonged stress, and how in turn your diet can potentially reduce your stress levels. Which foods help stress? How does stress affect our eating behaviour? These questions and more will be answered in this informative article on stress and nutrition.
How can stress affect eating behaviour?
Stress is widely thought to lead to overeating. While in the short term you may experience a reduction in appetite, over the long term many people are led to overeat as a direct result of stress. One of the reasons for this is that the stress hormone cortisol can lead you to crave sugar, fat, and salt. These foods trigger certain hormones which lift your mood and make you feel better, but only temporarily. This behaviour is then learned, and your body realises that by eating foods high in sugar, fat, and salt, you will start to feel better so you crave them more. However, this is clearly a vicious cycle and one that is best avoided as early as possible.
According to research, women are more likely than men to reach for food during times of stress. In fact, men are found to crave alcohol and cigarettes during times of stress more than food. However, this means that as a woman, you may end up binge eating to deal with stressful times and situations.
What does stress do to your digestive system?
When we are stressed, blood is directed away from the centre of the body and redirected to the brain and limbs to support the natural ‘fight or flight’ response. What this means is that you will have less blood in your gut to help with food absorption and you may be left with indigestion and heart burn. This decreased blood flow to the gut also decreases the metabolism as the body essentially ‘shuts down’ to preserve itself.
Prolonged stress can lead to several serious health risks such as peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and acid reflux. If you are suffering from any of these issues, it is possible that stress is a leading cause.
Which foods help stress?
Thankfully, there are some foods which can help to reduce your stress levels and improve your wellbeing. Vitamin B-rich foods like salmon and broccoli are proven to reduce stress while dark chocolate is proven to lower levels of stress hormones in the body meaning you will be not only less stressed but overall more healthy too.
There are also lots of ways you can manage stress with exercise, as working out releases feel-good hormones called endorphins which are proven to reduce stress, not to mention the fact that a tough gym workout can be a great way to relieve stress physically by doing boxing or something similar.
How to stop stress-eating
Follow these tips in order to stop stress-eating and get your diet back on track.
Coffee raises your heart rate and can lead to anxiety and insomnia. You may think that drinking a cup of coffee at a stressful time is helping you to be more alert and focused, but it is actually doing the opposite. Cut back on the caffeine as much as possible, and don’t drink coffee after lunch to prevent your sleep being affected.
Get a stress ball
Instead of reaching for the sugary snacks to get you through a stressful situation, redirect your energy elsewhere, such as a stress ball. By squeezing a soft ball or clicking a fidget gadget, you can release your nervous energy without damaging your waistline.
Get to the root of the stress
This is probably the best way to combat stress-eating: get rid of the source of the stress. If it is your work that is stressing you out, try compartmentalising your workload by writing lists and prioritising important tasks that need attention right away. If it is a certain person who is stressing you out, try talking to them or discussing the issue to get to the root of the problem. If it is someone you don’t know very well, it may be worth cutting ties if their impact on your life is damaging your health.
It's hard to avoid the newest trend in town: fat is in, carbs are out. But is a high fat/low carb diet right for you? We explore why it might not be all it's cracked up to be.
Saturated Vs Unsaturated Fat
It's the most trendy thing in the world right now: the humble avocado. Why? Because it's high in 'healthy' fats (and because it makes for a cute emoji). Fat is enjoying a resurgence of late because, well, we need it to survive and the fact it has been demonised in the past is now being put into question. We need fat for a variety of natural bodily functions such as creating energy, absorbing vitamins and minerals, maintaining body temperature, and insulating the body's vital organs.
There are three types of fat: saturated, unsaturated (which is then sub-categorised into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and trans fat. Trans fat, otherwise known as hydrogenated fat, is completely synthetic and is never good for you; you could live your whole life without consuming it and you'd actually be better off for it. Saturated fat goes in cycles of scientists deciding it's bad for you, then declaring it's actually not bad for you, then changing their minds again ad infinitum. The difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is found at a molecular level and refers to the way the hydrogen molecules are bonded together. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature, things like butter and cheese. Unsaturated fats are more likely to be oils like olive oil and vegetable oil however it's also found in foods like fish and nuts.
Which type of fat is better for you?
What's interesting is that a lot of research surrounding which types is better for you is observational or anecdotal. For example, one study found that a group of people with heart disease had higher levels of saturated fat in their diets so it was decided saturated fat must equal heart disease. However, we all know that correlation does not equal causation and a study like this doesn't actually prove that the fact these people had consumed a lot of saturated fat is what caused their heart disease.
Similarly, when it comes to how healthy unsaturated fat is claimed to be, people often refer to the 'Mediterranean diet' and how the people of countries like Greece and Italy consume larger quantities of olive oils and fish so that must be why they're all so slim, tan, and healthy. However, when you visit these countries, you realise that these people are all so fit and healthy because they walk or cycle everywhere, live up steep hills so do a lot of strenuous exercise just to buy their morning newspaper, and are more likely to work a physical job than wilt in an office all day.
Coconut oil is a saturated fat yet it is enjoying real popularity at the moment due to its supposed health benefits. So, the jury's out on which fat we should consume and probably always will be depending on whose agenda is paying the most for advertising at the time. But what we are being told is that a high fat diet is awesome for you. But is it really?
The Keto Diet
The biggest fad diet of recent years is the keto diet. The Atkins diet reborn, this eating habit was first developed to help reduce seizures in epileptic children but people soon discovered it had more benefits than that. The keto diet is a very extreme diet and many followers will eat up to 70% fats in a day leaving only 20% for protein and 10% for carbs. Anyone you talk to who is a proponent for this diet will passionately and sometimes heatedly tell you about how much weight they lost by following it. So it must be great and the answer to your prayers, right?
Perhaps not. What a lot of keto-fans omit is that they also practise intermittent fasting as part of their keto diet. Intermittent fasting is a lifestyle that has been around for millennia and is a proven, healthy way of losing weight. So is it the high fat diet making these people lose weight or the fact they are objectively in a calorie deficit due to the fasting? I'd argue it's the latter.
The keto diet has a whole host of nasty side effects such as 'keto flu' and halitosis (bad breath). Why anyone would voluntarily go through this process is beyond me, but it's trendy and all your favourite Instagram influencers are doing it so it must work (that's a lot of people's thinking).
Why a high fat diet might not be right for you
This is the real reason you're here: to find out why a high fat diet might not be the saviour we all thought it would be. Put in simple terms, fat contains a lot more calories per gram than protein and carbohydrates; over double the amount in fact.
Fat contains 9 calories per gram. So 100 grams of pure fat would contain 900 calories (lovely thought, not.)
Carbohydrates and protein, however, contain only 4 calories per gram. So even though bread has been demonised by the anti-sugar, ant-gluten fanatics, it is objectively lower calorie than avocado gram for gram.
What this means is that on a high fat diet you cannot consume the same volume of food that you can on a lower fat diet. The volume of food you eat is just as important as how many calories you consume because it can affect you mentally. If you're only allowed to eat 1 avocado and a ton of butter in a day rather than a truck load of vegetables, rice cakes, popcorn and other low-calorie high density foods, you're going to feel hard done by and importantly: hungry.
If you're someone who is prone to extreme hunger, binge attacks, or just doesn't have the steely, inhuman self control of pristine Instagram models, a high fat diet might not be right for you. High fat foods are easy to over-consume and you can't eat as much of them. Snacks like nuts are a big one for many people: they're told they're healthy, so they eat fistfuls every day and then wonder why they're gaining weight. A similar phenomenon started happening with peanut butter when that was enjoying its heyday on social media.
We need all three dietary macronutrients to maintain a healthy diet: fat, carbs, protein. They all play their own part and have their own benefits. If eaten in moderation, anything can be healthy. Taking things to the extreme is never a good idea and cutting out whole food groups is not sustainable. Depending on your fitness training and goals, you might need more of one macronutrient than the other, but it should never be as extreme as 60 or 70% of just one macronutrient.
Traditional 'junk food' such as cookies, cakes, and doughnuts contain trans fats which is one reason why they're so unhealthy, plus the obvious fact that they contain no vitamins or minerals and are often very high in sugar and calories. It's not because they're 'carbs'. Vegetables are carbs after all!
High-fat foods are calorie-dense meaning you can't eat as much volume. Unprocessed carbohydrates like fruit, vegetables, popcorn, brown rice, and beans can be just as healthy for you and you can eat more volume of them because they are lower in calorie pound for pound. Ultimately, balance is always key!
Chances are you have a rough idea what the Atkins diet is, and now you're hearing people talk about being on a 'keto' diet. But what does it mean? Is it an effective way of losing weight or just another fad diet?
What can you eat on a ketogenic diet?
The ketogenic diet is an extreme low carb diet plan which aims to aid weight loss through achieving a state called 'ketosis'. When your body is in a state of ketosis, it burns fat as fuel instead of carbohydrate and the theory is that this is a good way to drop body fat. However, it is an extremely complicated and scientific process and must be followed very strictly for it to work.
With regards to what you can eat, the keto diet is strictly high fat, low carb. To be more specific, nearly no carbs at all. As soon as you slip and eat a small amount of carbohydrates, your body will snap out of ketosis and you will pile on weight due to your body storing the carbs. Ketosis is a state our body adapts to naturally when food supplies are low; it is a form of starvation mode. Whenever the body is in starvation mode, it naturally wants to hold on to as much energy as possible because it thinks there's a low food supply. So if you slip up or eat a snack, you'll hold on to it more so than if you were not following a keto diet.
A typical keto meal plan will consist of eggs, bacon and other fatty meats, double cream and other high fat dairy, and vegetables. You strictly cannot eat any sugar so that means no fruit or junk food, no starch so no potatoes, beans, or legumes, and no grains so no bread or cereals. It is a ridiculously tough 'diet' to stick to and it is advised that you should employ the help of a trained physician or medical professional as it is so complicated. This is not a diet to be taken lightly and it is strongly recommended not to follow it if you have not done proper research first.
Is the ketogenic diet safe?
The ketogenic diet was actually originally created as a way of controlling and treating epilepsy, and diet regimens like this have been used for hundreds of years. When modern treatments and anti-epileptic drugs became more widely available in the early 20th century, the use of extreme fasting diets declined. However, people began adopting this regimen for weight loss and interest has spiked in recent years, especially following the fame of the notorious Atkins diet.
There are a lot of negative side effects to being in a state of ketosis. Most infamously is the bad breath you will suffer. You will also suffer from increased urination as ketosis is a natural diuretic and this will also lead to suffering from an extremely dry mouth. It is also highly likely that you'll suffer from the 'keto flu' which has symptoms including headaches, nausea, fatigue, and cramping. As the ketogenic diet employs a lot of fasting, be prepared to be very hungry a lot of the time too!
In answer to the question, "is it safe?" the answer is only if it is followed properly. Any type of fasting or extreme change in diet should be monitored by a healthcare professional otherwise it could be potentially dangerous. If you still want to try this diet after reading the above, make sure you do your research first and are fully prepared.
How many carbs can you eat and still be in ketosis?
If you limit your carbohydrate intake severely by eating less than 15g per day, you will enter ketosis more quickly. You can eat up to 25g of carbs per day and still be in ketosis. Any more than this and you risk snapping back and storing fat. Your total carbohydrate intake should be no more than 5% of your total daily calories. You should have 75% fat and 25% protein. This is really not a recommendable ratio of macros and you should proceed with extreme caution.
What is gluten? What is a gluten-free diet? Why is it bad for some people?
New research by YouGov has found that as many as 60% of adults in the UK have bought a gluten-free product, whilst 10% of households contain someone who believes gluten is bad for them. But what actually is gluten? And how can it affect our health?
What is gluten?
Gluten is actually a protein component and is commonly found in wheat, barley, and rye. It is made up of two forms of proteins: gliadin and glutenin. When these cereal grains are mixed with water, the proteins in gluten form a sticky texture with a glue-like consistency and this is how soft, doughy foods are made. The glue-like property of this mixture is what makes the dough elastic and gives the chewy, stodgy texture. The name gluten is derived from the fact it is glue-like in texture.
Why is gluten bad for some people?
Most people will not suffer any negative side effects from eating gluten. However, some people suffer from gluten-intolerant diseases, the most notable being coeliac disease, and this can cause them some distress if they ingest the protein. Coeliac is a fairly common digestive problem whereby the small intestine becomes inflamed and unable to digest any nutrients. Those who truly suffer from a gluten intolerance may become seriously ill after consuming it. Most people who think they have a gluten intolerance just become bloated from eating too much and stretching the stomach, and confuse this for a real illness.
Will gluten-free make you lose weight?
No, it won't. Removing gluten from your diet and eating special gluten-free products will not help you to lose weight as it does not affect the calorie balance of your food intake. In fact, many gluten-free foods still contain a high number of calories, sugar, and fat, and so by thinking it's healthy and eating more, you're actually likely to gain weight. If you don't have a diagnosed condition, you don't need to eat gluten-free foods.
Who should go gluten-free?
If a person suffers from coeliac disease, eating a product containing gluten means their body physically cannot digest it and it triggers their immune system to start damaging their small intestine. Gluten does this to a coeliac by destroying their villi. Villi are tiny protrusions which line the intestine and transfer essential nutrients into the bloodstream. Once the villi are damaged, a person will become malnourished, regardless of their food consumption, as their body simply cannot absorb the right nutrients from what’s being ingested. Coeliac is a serious disease and so you would know if you have it. If you're not sure, it can be diagnosed with a blood test. Those with coeliac disease must avoid gluten in order to stay nourished and healthy. Those without this disease have absolutely no reason no to eat gluten, and if they are becoming bloated often, this is probably due to something else.
Important facts about coeliac disease
- Coeliac UK found that the disease affects only 1 in 100 adults in the UK.
- Coeliac disease is not an allergy or an intolerance, it is an autoimmune disease.
- You cannot ‘grow out’ of Coeliac disease, it is a lifelong disease.
- As little as a breadcrumb of gluten can harm someone with Coeliac disease.
A day doesn’t go by when I don’t see a new fat-burner, superfood, or other health-promoting supplement on the market. With the global supplement industry expected to reach nearly $300 billion by 2024, it begs the question, is all this pill-popping and powder-blending really necessary?
Firstly, just to clarify, there is no official definition of the term ‘superfood’ but for the sake of argument we can say it is used to describe foods that pack a lot of nutritional benefits into a small quantity of the food. These foods are nutritionally dense compared to foods described as having 'empty calories' like most junk food, which contains very little nutrition for a lot of calories.
Here’s a rundown of some popular superfoods and the verdict on whether they’re fat burning heroes or will simply burn a hole in your wallet.
If the theory that cider vinegar helps with weight loss is true, the idea behind coconut vinegar is the same. It won’t magically burn fat, but vinegar of all types slows down the absorption of carbohydrate, lowering the Glycaemic Index of a meal slightly so it may make you feel fuller for longer. Also, there has recently been a lot of research into gut bacteria and the link to obesity and blood sugar regulation as well as other conditions, so if you’re consuming a ‘live’ coconut vinegar with the probiotics intact, it will contribute to a healthy gut. It’s also a virtually calorie-free way to dress salads, and reducing calories is key when trying to burn fat.
This is more known for its anti-parasitic properties and so some people consume it when trying to treat intestinal parasites, but it’s the substance Thujone in the tea that proposes fat loss. However, thujone has yet to be proven safe for consumption, and in the US wormwood can only be sold as a food substance if ‘thujone free’.
Pomegranate is a nutrient-dense fruit full of fibre and antioxidants. Like all fruit juices, though, removing the seeds and pulp removes the fibre that benefits your bowel and heart, and keeps you full. Drinking juice of any kind means you’re consuming calories from sugar, albeit natural sugar, without satisfying your appetite. There are no magic fat burning properties to pomegranate juice, but a whole pomegranate is a much more fat-loss friendly food than a chocolate bar or piece of cake!
Cinnamon is very slightly thermogenic (meaning it boosts the metabolism), but not nearly enough to actually have an effect on weight loss. Its main benefits come from helping to keep blood sugar levels stable. This will lower the effect sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods have on your blood sugar levels, reduce a subsequent ‘crash’, and therefore reduce the hunger and cravings that can accompany a crash. If this means you’ll not eat the sugary foods you’re craving then cinnamon may be helpful in this way. Cinnamon is also a calorie-free way to slightly sweeten foods without adding sugar.
Peppers contain capsaicin, a thermogenic compound found in some spices, which slightly elevates metabolism after consumption. One study found that about half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper either mixed in food or swallowed in a capsule helped normal-weight young adults burn about 10 more calories over a four-hour period, compared to eating the same meal but without the red pepper. 40 calories burnt is not going to make a difference to fat loss, however some people experience a slightly suppressed appetite when eating chillies which may help indirectly if it leads to consuming fewer calories.
Research in mice suggests that curcumin, the active yellow compound in turmeric, may help prevent regaining lost fat by discouraging the formation of new blood vessels in fat tissue. However, more research needs to be done as this doesn’t mean it will have the same effect on humans, and if it does, a high enough dose would be needed to have any effect. Turmeric in itself has many beneficial properties such as being a powerful anti-inflammatory and may be beneficial in preventing age-related brain disorders such as Alzheimer's. Turmeric is about 3% curcumin, and most studies showing benefits used at least 1g curcumin/day. So you’d have to eat 30g of turmeric to get the same effect, much more than your average curry, but it’s still a very healthy spice to include in your diet wherever possible.
What should you eat to lose body fat?
There is no one food that will cause fat loss directly. The only thing that causes weight loss is burning more calories than you eat.
What foods keep you full longer?
Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, so protein should always be kept high when trying to lose fat, both to keep you full and to help prevent losing muscle. After protein, whether you prefer more fat and lower carbohydrate or lower fat but higher carbs, or a mix of both is down to personal needs and preferences. Going either very low fat or low carb is not usually helpful for anyone though so don’t cut either out completely.
Low Glycaemic carbohydrates are better choices than high GI ones for keeping you full, so eating fresh fruit like apples is much better than dried fruit like apricots, and muesli will be more satiating than cornflakes.
Fibre slows down digestion and absorption, which keeps you full for longer. Fibre absorbs water to form a gel like substance which is slow to move through the gut and so keeps you feeling full. Fruit, vegetables, legumes and grains are good sources of fibre.
Water and water-rich foods like fruit, vegetables and salad. Water is essential for virtually every body process including fat-burning, and fruit and veg fill you up with very few calories whilst also contributing to water and fibre intake.
How do you speed up your metabolism?
Foods that increase the metabolism slightly are termed ‘thermogenic’. The most well studied of these is green tea, and the active compound in green tea, EGCG, is found in many weight loss products. The effects are so small you’d have to consume an unrealistic amount to influence weight loss without changing other areas of your diet, but it is at least studied well and is safe for most people to use unlike most phoney supplements which have no proof they work and could even be harmful. Taken as a drink, green tea provides antioxidants, an energy lift without the post-coffee slump, and may suppress appetite and cravings slightly in some people.
Certain spices are also slightly thermogenic; capsaicin in hot chillies is one such extract, as well as cinnamon and ginger. Cinnamon can also help keep blood sugar stable so you’re less likely to get a sugar crash and crave sweet, energy-dense foods. Adding chilli to a stir fry or sprinkling cinnamon onto porridge are both easy ways to use these, though again they won’t make up for a diet containing too many calories for your needs.
Caffeine: we all feel more energetic after a cup of coffee, and it’s for this reason it’s used often in fat-burning supplements and pre-workout supplements – it stimulates your body to release fat from cells to be used as energy as well as stimulating your adrenal glands. Unfortunately your body does become accustomed to it and you won’t get the same effects if you use it regularly, and increasing caffeine consumption can be detrimental to health. However if a cup of good quality coffee occasionally is going to make you do that workout you would have otherwise have skipped, then for most people it can be helpful, just don’t start relying on it or drink it too close to bedtime.
Protein requires more calories to be digested than fat or carbohydrates, so consuming more of your calories from protein will increase the amount you burn. For every 100 calories of protein eaten, 20-35 of those calories will be used up just digesting the food! Carbohydrates are next at 5-15%, and lastly fat is easiest to digest, using only up to 5% of the energy consumed. Interestingly, adding fat to protein (for example tuna and olives or a piece of salmon which contains both), is the most satiating meal combination, more so than protein alone.
Which foods give you energy?
NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, and refers to the unconscious moving about we do during the day, from getting dressed and tidying up to fidgeting while sitting down. Studies show that reducing calories too low or getting insufficient nutrients and energy to feel at our best reduces the amount of NEAT we do, so without even thinking we’re less active and so burn fewer calories. For this reason consuming a nutrients rich diet that does not leave you running on empty will provide you with the get up and go you need to stay active throughout the day as well as take part in more formal exercise.
Want to burn fat without spending a fortune and rattling as you walk? Eat in a calorie deficit, but not so much that you have no energy to move around or workout. Consume lots of filling protein, fibre, and water rich foods. If certain food and drinks reduce hunger and cravings for you (such as drinking green tea) then great! But they don’t work for everyone. It’s not flashy but it works; good food, in the right amounts, and getting enough exercise and you’ll be saving both your health and your bank balance.
Pollyanna Hale is a personal trainer and nutritionist who helps Mums get in shape without sacrificing family life. www.thefitmumformula.com