By Kathy Abascal
Many of us gained weight during the pandemic and saw worsening in other health indicators (e.g., blood sugar and blood fat levels). Now that things seem to be calming down and we are less stressed, we should seize the opportunity to get back in shape. But we should not do this by cutting calories. Calories are important but they are not end-all be-all of losing weight and getting in shape.
Research shows that mice eating exactly the same number of calories differed in how much weight they gained depending on what they ate. Mice fed diets rich in inflammatory foods, such as sugars, bad fats, ultra-processed foods, and chemicals gained weight, while those fed a standard diet did not. How can that be, given that energy-wise a calorie is a calorie? The reason is that what we eat affects how we process the calories we eat.
Yet more surprising is that stress also affects how we process calories. In one study, mice who were stressed by being tied down gained more weight than control mice leading a “normal” lab mouse life. This was true even though the stressed mice, who were trying to break free, were too busy to eat all their food. Despite eating less and exerting themselves more, they gained more weight than the controls.
Another group of mice were stranded on a platform out in the open, something mice find very stressful. These mice were fed only junk food. Being stressed and anxious, they ate all their food and gained more weight than stressed mice on a normal diet or unstressed mice eating junk food.
Remember, all of these mice ate the same number of calories. This tells us that combining stress and bad food has a synergistic, negative effect on the body. And this is not only true for mice. For instance, one study found that women with higher stress levels burned fewer calories than women with lower stress loads, a difference large enough to cause an 11-pound weight gain in a year. In another study of some 7000 healthy students, a pro-inflammatory diet was linked to weight gain and obesity.
Stress, such as that of a pandemic, cannot be avoided. But remember, people under stress who eat an anti-inflammatory diet do not gain the weight, nor acquire the inflammatory abdominal fat, that those eating the “wrong” foods do. Simple solution: When under stress, just avoid sugars, simple carbs, and those quick grab-and-go meals, be it fast food or frozen pizza.
Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. Under stress, we crave inflammatory foods because they lower our stress hormone levels and make us instantly feel better. That is why we love them. Unfortunately, that feeling of bliss does not last. Instead, we quickly crave another chip, another piece of cheese, another cookie to feel better again. Breaking that downward spiral requires that we cold turkey eliminate sugars, bad fats, chemicals, and common trigger foods, such as dairy and wheat. Most people find that doing this quickly breaks that downward cycle. It usually only takes a few days to overcome those cravings, after which it gets easier and easier to eat well—especially if other stress-reducing techniques are added, such as walking, massage, meditation, gardening, and/or exercise.
This article has focused on unwanted weight because our culture tends to make that our primary goal. We strongly believe that once we are at “normal weight,” we will automatically be healthy. This is a mistaken belief. One study looked at women who had their belly fat liposuctioned who were scanned before the procedure and about one year later. Although the women got, and kept, flatter stomachs, their intraabdominal fat—the inflammatory fat we need to get rid of—increased. They ended up joining the ranks of the unhealthy skinny-fat.
What we should focus on is our health. The right weight is only one aspect of health. Having good blood pressure, normal blood fats, good circulation, and freedom from aches and pains are among other important measures. Eating well not only helps us lose weight but helps us be healthier. We end up not only feeling better about how we look but feeling better overall.
In conclusion, as we learn to live with COVID and prepare ourselves to cope with whatever other stress we must handle next, we should make anti-inflammatory foods our ally so we can move through those difficult moments without allowing them to worsen our health or our body image.
Kathy Abascal teaches online classes on how to quiet inflammation. She is a professional herbalist and has written several books. You can learn more about her, her work, and her classes at TQIDiet.com.