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.
If you're trying to lose weight, improve sporting performance, or improve your physique, knowing about macros could help you. We're here with everything you need to know about this important aspect of fitness and health.
What are macros?
The word 'macros' in a fitness context is short for 'macronutrients' and refers to the three building blocks of our food: fats, protein, and carbohydrates. Every food in existence is made up of varying ratios of these 'macros'. Macronutrients aren't what makes a food inherently 'healthy' or 'unhealthy' – for that we instead look at micronutrients which refers to vitamins and minerals. Fruit and vegetables are rich in micronutrients which makes them healthy, whereas junk food contains little to no micronutrients which is why it's unhealthy. Of course, this isn't the only thing that makes junk food unhealthy, but it explains that it's not unhealthy just because it's high in fat or carbs.
Sub-categories of macronutrients include fibre and sugar, which are classed as carbohydrates, and alcohol, which is sometimes referred to as 'the fourth macro'. Macros have set calorie amounts – 1g of carbs contains 4 calories, as does 1g of protein, while 1g of fat contains 9 calories. This is why foods high in fat are naturally higher in calories, but not necessarily more unhealthy. For example, nuts and seeds are very calorific because of their fat content but they are very good for our health. Just don't eat too many in one go!
Ultimately, weight loss or weight gain is dictated by your daily calorie intake vs expenditure, however looking deeper at counting your macros can help you make sure you're getting enough of the right nutrients as well as improving your fitness and sporting performance. Someone who is slim due to not eating lots of calories may seem healthy, but if they're not eating the right combination of macros and micronutrients, they aren't really healthy at all.
Each macronutrient is important for our health for a different reason. Fat is important because some vitamins are can only be absorbed by our bodies when we consume fat, it also insulates us and helps our brains function properly. Carbohydrates fuel us while protein repairs damaged muscles and promotes new tissue growth. No single macro should ever be vilified and we need all of them to have a healthy, functioning body. The ratio you choose will depend entirely on your lifestyle and fitness goals.
Which macro split should I use?
One of the most extreme macro splits that is popular at the moment is the keto diet. People following the keto diet aim to enter a state called 'ketosis' whereby the body uses fat for energy instead of carbs. The most common keto macro split is 70% fat, 25% protein, 5% carbs, but some people are known to have gone as extreme as 90% fat with only 5% reserved for each carbs and protein.
Keto is a very extreme diet and the long-term health effects have not been conclusively studied. For the average person, it is definitely better to follow a more traditional macro split.
Macros for weight loss
The average adult when trying to lose weight should focus primarily on their calorie balance – how many calories you eat versus how many you burn on a daily basis. Being in a calorie deficit is the only way to lose weight, and how much of a calorie deficit you're in will dictate how quickly you lose weight.
A safe and well-trusted daily deficit of 500 calories will see you lose around 1lb per week. Any weight loss diet must be sustainable for it to work and for you to see real results. Therefore, an extreme macro ratio will not be helpful. Instead, you'll want to opt for a very sensible macro split of 40% carbs, 30% protein, 30% fat. This will ensure you are getting enough of each macro and will not feel deprived and can still eat delicious, filling foods such as brown rice, quinoa, poultry, fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. It will also ensure you still have plenty of energy and can exercise safely.
Macros for bodybuilding
When bodybuilding or powerlifting, an athlete will need more protein than the average adult due to the necessity to build more muscle. A classic macro split for bodybuilding or powerlifting is 40% protein, 40% fat, 20% carbs. Like the keto diet, this is a relatively low carb diet, albeit nowhere near as extreme. Another high protein macro split which is more balanced is 40% protein, 30% carbs, 30% fat. Both of these ratios would be beneficial for someone who lifts heavy weights regularly (5-6 times a week) and doesn't do much cardio (such as running).
If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM)
A diet/lifestyle often touted on social media is something called IIFYM – If It Fits Your Macros. This is the idea that so long as the foods you're eating fit your daily macro outlines, you can eat whatever you want. As touched upon above, some foods are far inferior to others due to their lack of real nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fibre).
People who promote IIFYM claim they can eat chocolate, pizza, fast food, and porridge oats smothered in peanut butter every day without any negative side effects, and are often in very good shape themselves. Unfortunately, the truth is this isn't possible for the average adult. Without adequate fibre, vitamins, and minerals, you will become very unhealthy very quickly and will suffer from all number of health issues from constipation or diarrhoea to headaches, lethargy, and vitamin-deficiencies.
While it's true you could maintain your weight on an IIFYM diet, you would not be getting the nutrients you need from junk foods like chocolate, chemical flavour drops, and other products popularly pushed by these social media stars. This is one to be avoided by most people.
James Mitchell @iifymitch regularly posts photos like the above on Instagram, but eating half a bar of chocolate on top of porridge oats for breakfast every day is not a good idea for anyone.
How to count macros
Once you have decided on the best macro ratio for you, you need to know how many calories you should be eating in a day. The easiest way to do this is using a TDEE Calculator. Your TDEE is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure and takes into consideration your daily activity level, your age, weight, gender, and other factors which will affect how many calories you burn on a daily basis.
Once you know your TDEE, you can adjust your calories in accordance with your goals. As mentioned above, if you're looking to lose weight, you should take 500 calories off your TDEE. If you want to pack on muscle, you should add calories.
So let's say your TDEE is 2,000 calories and you want to lose 1lb a week. Your daily calorie goal will be 1,500 calories.
If you've chosen the sustainable weight loss macro split of:
- 40% carbs
- 30% protein
- 30% fat
40% of 1,500 is 600
30% of 1,500 is 450
This will equate to:
- 600 calories from carbs
- 450 calories from protein
- 450 calories from fat
As we know, there are 4 calories in 1g of carbs and protein and 9 calories in 1g of fat. So that means our macros would be:
- 150g of carbs
- 112g of protein
- 50g of fat
You will need to keep a food diary and track exactly what you're eating so that you know what macros you are consuming. The easiest way to do this is with an app like MyFitnessPal as everything will be automated to make it easier.
It may seem like a lot of work at first, but once you have a routine in place and you know the calories and macros of the foods you eat most, you will find it much easier to count your macros.
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.