Stress is the new gluten: it’s the scapegoat for everything that ails us (including weight gain). Just like with gluten, almost nobody who is trying to avoid it can tell you what it is, and unscrupulous authors are making a fortune by cherry picking and misrepresenting research to make you afraid. As a species we’re wired to pay attention to what we fear, so fear is a powerful, if unethical, marketing tool. Before we get to the myths and facts, I think it’s going to be very helpful to be on the same page about what stress is.
The word “stress” was first coined by Hans Selye in the 1930’s which he defined as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. In other words, anything that knocks us out of homeostasis. Homeostasis is a fancy way to say “constant conditions.” Body temperature is a great example. Our body needs to be at about 98.6F. When it is cold outside our body does work to stay warm.
While Selye did document some negative impacts of his research on lab rats, these negative impacts were only after long periods of merciless torture. Think rodent waterboarding, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, etc. for days, weeks and months with no escape or control. This was what he called “bad stress,” and is not at all the same as a toddler power struggle, financial problems, or traffic jams.
Myth: Stress is making you fat
Fact: Stress hormones actually suppress appetite and energize you just like coffee. Weight loss is about energy balance (take in fewer calories than you expend). Stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenalin help you eat less, and move more.
What women usually refer to as “stress” is sleep deprivation and/or things that cause/contribute to sleep deprivation. An obvious example is trying to balancing career and family and self-care (i.e. working out) and keeping up with your “friends” social media. As you already know from experience (and research has confirmed), sleep deprivation makes you hungry and tired.
High levels of sleep deprivation give you the munchies like pot. It activates the same cannaboid receptors in your brain that marijuana does which makes high reward foods (sugar + fat + salt) extra tempting. Additionally, when you’re tired you try to conserve energy (a.k.a. do less, move less). The combination of strong urges to eat more and to move as little as possible lead to weight gain. When people say they are stress eating, they are usually talking about “tired eating.”
Myth: A stress-free (or a low-stress) life is healthy
Fact: Without stress we turn into mush both literally and figuratively. When astronauts spend time in space, they remove the stress of gravity on their body. Without the stress of gravity their body quickly loses muscle mass, bone density, strength and cardiovascular function/fitness, while they also gain fat. This is an extreme short-term example of what happens to the human body, but every time you look at a typical 75 year old American, you’re seeing this same process in slow motion.
The average 75 year old American has spent decades unintentionally minimizing stress on the body with our endless array of labor saving devices, and the results are obesity, osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, inability to walk without assistance, etc. Strength training (a.k.a. seeking stress regularly) is the real fountain of youth.
Since I’m not qualified to speak on the psychological benefits of stress, I will let Psychologist and stress expert Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D address that: Video Here