Beyond Calories: The Stress Edition

This miniseries explores some of the factors that may matter more than the calorie count when it comes to weight gain, loss, and maintenance.

“Delicious! But how many calories are in it?”

As I try to sincerely impart the value of the nutrients within each chia seed and the relative insignificance of the particular calorie count (and who even cares about serving sizes anyway?!) I’m already fighting a losing battle. My client has located the nutrition panel, they’ve done some quick math in their head, and they’ve decided that they’ll stick with their puffed rice snacks with fewer calories and virtually zero nutritional value.

I couldn't possibly!

I couldn't possibly!

I get it. I, too, was once a calorie-counting, artificial-sweetener-loving, low-fat-shopping customer. I knew all the tricks to eat the maximum amount of food for the minimum calorie load. Sugar-free Rockstars were my favorite drink. 0% fat Greek yogurt was like a personal gift from the Gods. And I believed this diligence was a necessary, if tragic, side effect of being female, thanks to the legacy passed on to me by my mother, courtesy of her mother, with all the best intentions.

Most of us have learned at some point that weight maintenance is all about “calories in = calories out.” It’s a simple equation. Basic math! But a quick review of the health of our country makes it clear that it might not be so simple, after all. We diet, jog, lift weights, skip breakfast, track our food, and struggle, struggle, struggle with our weight. Because -guess what?- it turns out that we were working with the wrong equation. We're trying to use arithmetic while our body runs on upper level calculus equations.

Don't forget to carry the stress and multiply by hormones.

Don't forget to carry the stress and multiply by hormones.

Our body is a complex web of processes and functions that influence how and when we store or burn calories. That’s not to say that calorie counts are insignificant, because they DO matter, but they certainly don’t have the final say. Or even the last word.


Stress is a broad term.  We all know the sweaty palm feeling before a first date (stress!) or the heart pounding shakes before that important workplace presentation (stress!) or the flat-out exhaustion after a grueling road race (stress!).  But there are other, more subtle versions of stress that can build up over time and wreak havoc on how our body deals with calories.  

...The emotional stress of a drawn out divorce, or ongoing financial struggles, or coping with the sickness of a loved one.

...The physical stress of working long days, or late nights, often under the guise of “having it all.”

...Chronic stress from years of “being good” and hitting that elliptical machine 5 days a week, grinding it out with repetitive, tiring motions (google “chronic cardio” if you’d welcome a few reasons to break this habit).

...The digestive stress of eating poor quality foods that require the body’s detoxification system to work overtime without providing enough nutrients to support the process.  

These scenarios are all unique from each other, yet they all send the same message to the body: we’re friggin' stressed out!  Physical, mental, digestive, emotional; it doesn’t matter. While our minds may be wrapped up in the why, our bodies only experience the what.

The feels.

The feels.

When it comes to weight, stress is a sneaky one.  The initial reaction is usually weight loss as the body spins into overdrive.  The adrenal glands pump out cortisol and other stress hormones, and our body responds by breaking down fat to create more energy.  Doesn’t matter why. We’re on edge.  Stay woke.

But over time, an interesting process can turn stress from an unexpected weight loss tool into an effective way to pack on the pounds.

Part of this is due to a backlash from consistently high cortisol production.  The “consistent” part is important; spikes and surges of cortisol that come from things like sprints, moments of high excitement, or the terror of a roller coaster ride are healthy and natural. But the chronic, steady release of cortisol over an extended period of time will eventually down-regulate our adrenal function. Nutrients are depleted and hormones like cortisol become too metabolically expensive to make. When this happens, the result -popularly known as adrenal fatigue- can leave our metabolism in the tank. Although we’re still stressed, our body is too low on cortisol co-factors to keep up with their steady production.  The thyroid gland might down-regulate in sympathy (<- not a scientific description). Metabolism slows. Pounds begin to pack on despite our best efforts to cut calories and stay active.

The other side of the stress coin is how it affects our digestion.  The stressed out body is running primarily in the sympathetic mode, its “fight or flight” state, instead of the parasympathetic mode, where we can rest and digest. Without full priority ever going to the digestive tract, key components of proper digestion and absorption can start to fail.

One simple example is stomach acid.  Years of stress later, your stomach has likely stopped producing very much acid (because why bother when cortisol will barely let you sleep).  Eventually you find yourself dealing with acid reflux, an unexpected but common consequence of low stomach acid.  Meat suddenly makes you gassy and bloated.  Pathogenic microbes that should have been killed off by highly acidic gastric juices have passed through your gut intact and are colonizing the no-bug’s land of your lower small intestine. Now carbohydrates make you bloated and IBS symptoms are ruining your social life. Inflammation rises and your body starts to shuttle more and more calories into storage instead of burning them as energy.

Why? Because storing fat is not only a way that our body deals with extra calories, but also an insurance policy.  Throughout evolution, stress was often food related, as in “how am I going to survive this long, cold winter with my meager pile of tubers and 3 stew hens.” So the body learned that conservation -in general- is a smart reaction to chronic stress.

The last way (for the purposes of this blog, but unlikely the actual last way) that stress can sabotage our weight is through good, old-fashioned food cravings.  The body wants quick and easy energy in times of stress, so it asks for refined, high-carbohydrate foods like chips, cookies, and other products of our industrialized food world.  Piling these foods on top of slowing metabolism and sub-par gut function makes it literally impossible to maintain weight.

They're not donuts,&nbsp;they're tiny finger weights.

They're not donuts, they're tiny finger weights.

The good news is while we  might not always be able to control the stressful factors in our lives, we can control our body’s response to them. Simple practices that lower the heart rate and promote a sense of well-being like meditation, deep breathing, reading, or snuggling your pup can induce significant drops in stress hormone production. In trying times, the best habits we can cultivate are those that carve out areas of peace and calm, mindfulness, me-time, or whatever you call in, in the midst of the mayhem. Although it's the hardest time to make these habits stick, it's arguably the most factor in our physical, emotional, and metabolic well-being.

Breathe in, hon.

Breathe in, hon.