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When you’re under stress, you may find yourself turning to fatty or sugary comfort foods to help you cope. You’re not alone. In a 2010 survey by the American Psychological Association, almost half of all women reported eating unhealthy, empty-calorie foods as a way to manage stress. The best weight-management plan for women over 40 who are under stress is to forgo fatty, processed snacks and sugary, baked goods, which pack on the pounds. Instead, follow a diet rich in whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans and lean meat.
The Body Under Stress
As part of the natural fight or flight response that helps you get through stressful situations, your body begins to store fat and your metabolism slows down. If you’re under chronic stress, it becomes easy to gain weight and hard to take it off. Your body also gets depleted of vital nutrients like magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin C, and you may find yourself more susceptible to colds and infections or plagued by fatigue.
Bad Eating Habits
Under stress, you may crave carbohydrate-containing foods like cookies, doughnuts or cake. A study published in 2000 in the journal “Psychoneuroendocrinology” found that healthy premenopausal women chose sweet foods most often after stressful incidents and also increased their consumption of these treats. This overconsumption of comfort foods in turn led to added pounds. A similar study published the same year in “Psychosomatic Medicine” concluded it wasn’t just the sugary taste that women under stress craved but high-calorie foods that combine sugar with dense fat content — a recipe for weight gain. These foods digest quickly, making you want more. Additionally, you may gravitate toward fast foods like cheeseburgers and French fries when you’re under pressure — foods that contribute to weight gain and risk of cardiovascular disease, which has links to stress.
The best weight-management plan for women under stress involves eating small meals and snacks throughout the day drawn from nutrient-dense whole foods, including healthy carbohydrates. The Institute of Medicine advises adults to get 45 to 65 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates, with 25 to 38 grams from fiber. Naturally low in calories and packed with fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables replenish immunity-boosting nutrients robbed from the body by stress. Berries, citrus, broccoli and bell pepper can replace the vitamin C lost during stress, while dark leafy greens and whole grains help replenish B vitamins. The fiber in these foods keeps you feeling full longer so that you aren’t reaching for unhealthy snacks. Many fruits, vegetables and whole grains are slow carbs, which means they digest slowly, supplying a steady stream of glucose to fuel your bodily processes.
Lean Protein and Healthy Fats
For the best weight management, balance carbs with healthy sources of protein and fats. The IOM recommends that adults get 10 to 35 percent of their calories from protein and 20 to 35 percent from fat. Good sources of protein include white-meat chicken and turkey, eggs, cold-water fish, soy foods and legumes. Many of these proteins also contribute healthy fats to your diet, which will help cut your risk of arteriosclerosis, heart attack and stroke. Other sources of healthy fats include olives and olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds. Protein and fat also help fill you up so you stay satiated.
The combination of healthy food choices and regular exercise provides you with the best weight-management plan for stress. Burning calories through movement keeps your weight in check and your heart healthy. An added benefit of physical activity is that your body produces more endorphins, neurotransmitters that lift your mood. If you have been mostly sedentary, increase your physical activity slowly, starting off with just 20 or 30 minutes of walking or swimming three times a week, advises MayoClinic.com. Pick activities that you like so that you’ll be more likely to stick with them.
- Stress in America; American Psychological Association
- Natural Highs; Hyla Case, M.D., and Patrick Holford
- Psychoneuroendocrinology: Stress May Add Bite to Appetite in Women
- Psychosomatic Medicine: Stress and Food Choice
- Harvard School of Public Health: Carbohydrates
- American Institute of Stress: Stress and Heart Disease
- HelpGuide.org: Choosing Healthy Fats
- MayoClinic.com: Exercise and Stress
Paula Martinac holds a Master of Science in health and nutrition education from Hawthorn University, with an emphasis on healthy aging, cancer prevention, weight control and stress management. She is Board Certified in holistic nutrition and a Certified Food and Spirit Practitioner, and has written extensively on nutrition for various websites.