Why We Overeat Part 2: Stress

Hey folks if you haven’t already read part 1 of this series on overeating: Feast and Famine go ahead and do so to get some context for this post.

In the first part of this series we discussed how hunger works, and the fact that are hardwired for cycles of feast and famine.

Our ability to feast during certain times helped us to survive when dealing with famine. This same reward system that was crucial for overeating now works against us because our evolutionary habits don’t match with our current environment and modern foods.

When it comes to something as complicated as overeating, there are a lot of factors to consider and understand.

Once people understand the triggers for overeating they can work  towards a habit based reduction in the triggers and habits that lead to overeating.

In this blog post I am going to be discussing one of the biggest dark horses in overeating; stress. We have all heard mentions of stress or emotional eating,but Why does stress  cause people to overeat and make less healthy food choices ? Is it more of a mental or physical trigger ?

keep reading to learn more.

What Is Stress ?

Before we dive into the effects of stress lets define what it is,and dispel the myth that all stress is bad. Stress can be defined as a mental, physical or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.

Stresses can be external such as ( social situations, environmental or psychological) or internal such as illness or a  medical procedure.

As an example building muscle from going to the gym and lifting heavy weights  is a beneficial stress response. Mini challenges to the immune system that allow it to grow stronger and fight off larger infections is a beneficial stress as well.

Certain forms of stress  that are short in duration are good for the body, but the poison is in the dose. Most folks are overdosing on stress daily.

How Stress Works In Your Body

We are adapted to handle infrequent short bouts of intense stress followed by time to rest and recover. Unfortunately our modern lifestyle is one of chronic low grade stressors that happen all day long with no time to recover.

Life requires the body to constantly be checking and establishing equilibrium.This equilibrium is known as homeostasis, for the purpose of this blog we are going to apply this to the  processes of appetite regulation, energy storage and use  as it relates to overeating.

Our stress response is a flow of adaptive changes that start in the central nervous system. This stress response is designed to be intense and  short in duration which causes mental, behavioral and physical changes.

Lets say we encounter a mountain lion on while on a hike. In response to the threat of a  mountain lion the body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to make the heart beat faster, increase the pulse  and move blood to the extremities to prepare for fighting or running away.

The secretion of cortisol also triggers the uptake of blood sugar into the cells to make sure all your energy can go towards fighting or running.

This stress causes the body to use all available blood sugar stored in the muscles or in the blood stream. The mountain lion sees you and runs away but you can still feel the effects of the stress hormones.

Adrenaline runs it course and is cycled out of the system in a short amount of time.Cortisol sticks around for much longer and signals the body to refuel after the stressful event.

We need to eat  sugar and  pack on  fat to make sure we’re prepared for any future fight or flight events.  

In everyday life a more likely stress is money for bills, traffic or an overbearing boss at work. The response is the same as the mountain lion though.

Adrenaline and cortisol is released to cope with the stress response. Your body doesn’t realize you are not fighting or running away.

The cortisol tells your brain to replenish sugar and store fat  in anticipation of the next stressful situation.  

Our stressed out lifestyle is just like coming across the mountain lion all day long.  We are not adapted to handle this volume of stress, but our body does it’s best  to adapt.

Assume our body has a stress bank, and each time you get stressed you make a withdrawal from the bank. We are all operating in extreme stress debt.

Just the same as any other bank sooner or later you have to pay back what you owe. The  currency we pay back our debt with unfortunately is our health.

Stress and Willpower

As we evolved and our brains grew we developed a larger prefrontal cortex. This prefrontal cortex allows us to set goals and regulate our actions.

This is the most evolved part of our brain that helps us to manage, and delay gratification. The prefrontal cortex helps you resist those sugar cookies because you want to look good for a trip to Mexico.

When the stress response is triggered it inhibits the function of our prefrontal cortex. Your ability to delay gratification and think of long term disappears.

In a fight or flight situation being impulsive is an advantage because your only focus is acting quickly and managing immediate threats.

In this state our body is concerned with improving  mood as quickly as possible, regardless of the consequences.

Someone who has something to live for is going to run much faster than a depressed person. The cravings are also  amplified to make sure you consume the foods that hit the reward center in the brain and elevate mood.

When this impulsive behavior is combined with reduced willpower and a perceived need to replenish blood sugar and elevate mood, it is a perfect recipe for overeating.

If overeating was due to occasional stress it wouldn’t be a problem. Our lifestyle and society is not conducive to occasional stress.

Comfort Foods = Sugar, Fat and Addiction

We are hardwired to crave dense sources of energy in the forms of sugar and fats, and processed carbohydrates. 

After consuming these energy dense foods the section of the brain that regulates stress starts to calm down and relax.

The reward system in the brain is triggered and dopamine is released to improve mood. It is a slippery slope when someone eats a food to feel better, not out of hunger.

Over time the same amount of food doesn’t elicit the same mood response, and the person has to eat more to achieve the feeling they are looking for.

Slight overeating can snowball into binging in an attempt to alleviate stress and feel better. The feelings of guilt and shame only create more stress and a vicious cycle that begins and ends with overeating.

While we are adapted to handle a certain amount of stress, beyond a certain point it damages our health and leads to cravings, drained willpower, impulsive behavior and eating to make us eat feel better instead of because of hunger.

I highly encourage you to find a form of stress reduction to do throughout the day. It can be taking your dog for a morning/nightly walk, writing in a journal, going to a yoga class or doing a form of meditation.

The very last post of this series is going to be dedicated to different methods that can be used to address each of the problems that stress provides.

In part 3 of this series I’ll be writing on another huge component of overall health that contributes to overeating.. stay tuned to see what it is!

Fill out the form below if you’re looking for a coach who can help you adopt the simple habits necessary to reach your health, fat loss or muscle building goals.

These habits are based on getting you to your goal in a sustainable fashion that can be maintained, while keeping you accountable along the way.


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Why Is Sugar Addictive ?

Why Is Sugar Addictive ?

There is no little doubt that sugar is one of the most damaging parts of our modern diet. Many of the diseases we suffer from as a society today are tied to excess consumption of sugar and processed carbohydrates.

Obesity, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, fatty liver disease and even Alzheimer’s (Type 3 Diabetes) all have links to excess refined sugar,  carbohydrate and calorie consumption.  

We have been conditioned to accept the amount of sugar in our modern diet and think of it as normal. Next time you go to the grocery store flip over the packaged foods and read the ingredient list.

You will absolutely find a form of sugar listed. Even the “health foods” at supermarket are going to be loaded with sugar.There are over fifty six names for sugar, and food manufacturers use this to their advantage.

Even foods that are considered “healthy” such as granola, low fat yogurt and breakfast cereals all have so much added sugar they are more like a soda than a health food.

Why is it that all packaged foods at the grocery store contain so much added sugar ? and how did sugar become such a large part of our foods ? There are a two very important events that dramatically altered food industry and our intake of refined sugar as a society, lets take a closer look.

Two Big Milestones

The introduction of refined sugars into our diet took place about four hundred years ago. As societies grew larger, more people needed to be fed.

For our society to continue to grow we started to move away from more natural foods that easily perished and adopted more industrialized processed foods.

These industrialized foods needed to be able to last longer while they were shipped and delivered to different regions and sat on food shelves.

It was quickly realized that refined sugar made foods taste much better, and was a very cheap preservative. Making foods last longer and taste better by adding refined sugars became the industry standard.

Without any consideration of the health consequences this extra refined sugar would have, it  became an ingredient in all processed and packaged foods.

Another huge milestone that changed the way we still eat today was the low fat movement. On the advice of our government society was told to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol at all costs.

To meet the new demand of society the food industry quickly began making low fat “health foods”. The problem is that when a natural flavor profile such as fat has been removed the food tastes terrible. Luckily the food industry is great at solving problems to make sure they don’t lose money.

This problem was  solved  by adding mass quantities of sugar to these low fat foods. Because people were told to be concerned about saturated fats and cholesterol the extra sugar injected into the diet went unnoticed.

People were far more worries about seeing the words fat free or low fat on their foods they were about the grams of sugar on the label.

People in the United States are consuming mass quantities of refined sugar everyday, even if they don’t know it . When you combine this excessive intake of refined sugar with processed carbohydrates and calories it creates a perfect metabolic storm and sets up strong cravings for sugar.

It isn’t until people reduce sugar and processed carbohydrates that they quickly realize how strong their cravings and addictions to sugar are.

No one is to blame for this dysfunctional relationship with sugar, except the food industry. We are hardwired to enjoy and crave sweet foods, they provide a strong evolutionary signal of nutrient and energy density.

Primal Brains, Modern Foods  

Our brains have built in evolutionary mechanisms that are major drivers for our behavior. Many of these evolutionary drives are meant for survival, one of the main drives is eating.

When we eat sugar there are certain reward systems in the brain that are stimulated releasing neurotransmitters such as dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. Because dopamine causes us to feel good we have the evolutionary instinct to repeat that behavior.

This reward system is designed to help us navigate the behaviors for survival. These reward systems played pivotal roles in our survival during times of feast and famine.

A Hijacked Reward System

Today  we have the same primal reward systems in place that guide our decisions around food. The refined sugar  that we eat these days is much sweeter and concentrated  than what could be found in nature.

As a result of this concentrated and hyper sweet energy source our brain becomes flooded with dopamine causing an overstimulation of the reward system.

The dopamine signaling that is meant to guide our dietary decisions has been been taken over by these sweet foods. A much stronger pleasure signal is sent than what we would find in nature and our reward system becomes overwhelmed.

The same opioid pathways in the brain that sugar stimulates are similar to those  which heroin and morphine use. This is why some people seem powerless against sugar laden foods, and can’t control themselves.

Cravings Or Hunger ?

A lot of people mistake cravings for hunger, but there is a significant difference between the two. When a person is hungry they have physiological need for energy, when a person has a craving the brain is looking for a reward.

The perfect example is someone who just finished a big meal and if full but still craves a bowl of ice cream. The meal has satisfied their hunger and the body is well nourished, but the brain is looking for that reward, regardless of how well nourished you are.

The brain is looking for the dopamine and opioid signal to stimulate the reward system in the brain, and the quickest way to stimulate the reward system is with a large quantity of refined sugar.

More Is Less

Because of the easy access to refined sugar we begin abuse the reward system and signal too much dopamine release too often. Our body has protective mechanisms in place to make sure we keep things in better balance.

The brain downregulates (reduces) the amount of dopamine receptors, and as a result the same amount of sugar does not provide the same amount of pleasure as before.

Our solution to this problem is to consume larger quantities of sugar in an attempt to elicit the same dopamine response. Developing a tolerance to any kind of substance like sugar is a strong sign of addiction.  

The Poison Is In The Dose

As a person gains a greater tolerance to sugar more is needed to elicit the same feeling of pleasure because there are fewer receptors for dopamine.

While this person may not realize it they are are chasing the “sugar high” and the feeling becomes more important than the volume of sugar they are consuming.

Chasing this feeling and not worrying about the volume of sugar can lead people to binging in an attempt to feel pleasure.

The problem is that with far fewer dopamine receptors available the person may not reach that high they are looking for because of increased tolerance.

The Sugar Blues

Once a person realizes their sugar consumption has gotten out of f hand they commonly cut back or eliminate sugar from their diet.

Without  sugar to stimulate the pleasure center, and far less receptors for the dopamine being released the person does not feel the same pleasure they did before.

Your body is looking for sugar to stimulate pleasure, but it is not present. As a result the cravings mentally and physically get much stronger for the sugar. This experience is what has been coined withdrawal.

Tolerance and withdrawal are the hallmarks of addiction, similar to what people experience with cigarettes, alcohol or cocaine. This withdrawal and extreme cravings that people experience are what makes eliminating sugar from the diet so difficult.

An Interesting Correlation

Because many people who are in recovery from a alcohol, cigarettes or drugs are still seeking that pleasure they once felt with their drug of choice, many of them turn to sugar.

The brain of those who struggle with addiction still crave the stimulation of the pleasure center. While they have made the choice to avoid their addiction, sugar plays on the same reward pathway and causes an identical addiction, but to sugar instead.  

Closing Thoughts

Sugar is one of the most widely accepted and used drugs on the planet. Just like with other drugs sugar causes a tolerance and withdrawal and can cause people to lose control over their behavior.

Once you are addicted to sugar, it is very hard to give up and avoid.

Because of the way our food system has been developed it is more difficult than ever to avoid refined sugars. It is present in all prepackaged foods that make up the majority of  the modern diet.

As a result the health of our society has been in a downward tailspin. Most of the modern diseases we are suffering from as a society can be linked back to excess consumption of sugar and processed carbohydrates.

If we are going to improve our health as society we need to break the cycle of sugar addiction, and eat foods that do not contain refined sugar or processed carbohydrates.

If you’re tired of working hard, and not getting the results you want, I can help you adopt the simple habits necessary to reach your health or fat loss goals.

These habits are based on getting you to your goal in a sustainable fashion that can be maintained. I’ll be there every step of the way to support and keep you accountable.  

Get on a Strategy Call with me to Discover how to achieve your health or fat loss goals, and make them yours to keep this time around.

Whether you decide to work with me or not I can guarantee you will leave this call with more knowledge on how to achieve your goals.

 

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