Two words likely best sum up most of our weight-gain woes that began nearly a year ago, with the onset of COVID-19: stress eating. Whether you’re an essential worker on the front lines, trying to do double duty working and parenting kids or feeling lonely — there are many valid reasons the pandemic has you feeling stressed.
For most of us, when we’re stressed, we eat, and there’s actually a scientific mechanism to explain this response. Stress — even in consistent, low-levels — causes blood cortisol concentration to rise. Cortisol increases appetite and stimulates glucose production. When we have too much glucose in our blood, our bodies store the excess as fat.
When you’re feeling stressed, reaching for nutrient-dense foods is more important than ever, especially to keep weight in check.
START WITH A TWO-WEEK RESET
If you’ve found the scale inching upward, or you’ve gained weight, don’t beat yourself up. Start small and get back to healthy eating habits. A two-week reset isn’t meant as an extreme cleanse or deep-dive-detox. Instead, this is a few weeks of mindful, purposeful, nutrient-dense eating that gives your body and brain time to reset, refocus and re-energize. Make sure to log your food with an app like MyFitnessPal, so you can get an accurate reflection of your dietary habits and be more mindful of what and how much you’re consuming. Research shows consistently tracking your intake helps you lose more weight and keep it off.
Weight gain is directly tied to increased inflammation, which can be caused by long periods of stress. When you eliminate foods that cause inflammation and negatively impact your immune system, you allow your body to spend more time and energy repairing itself. For two weeks, work on prioritizing a variety of colorful, whole foods.
Reduce foods that cause digestive distress and inflammation including:
FOODS HIGH IN ADDED SUGAR
Sugar (in the form of glucose) fuels our muscles, organs and tissues, but excess sugar is eventually converted and stored as fat. Too much sugar is linked to inflammation throughout the body. It feeds disease-causing bacteria in the gut, erodes the lining (making it more susceptible to inflammation) and keeps the good gut bacteria (the type found in abundance in leaner, healthier people) from thriving. Unlike natural sugars found in fruit and dairy, which come packaged with fiber and other important nutrients, added sugar disrupts our blood sugar patterns, which can offset the metabolism.
FOODS CONTAINING GLUTEN
Most whole-food sources of gluten like wheat, wheat berries, farro, barley and rye are very healthy. But other common sources of gluten include cookies, cereal and packaged snacks, which are highly-processed, stripping them of important nutrients like fiber. Eliminating gluten for a few weeks is a more effective way to temporarily reduce carbohydrate intake and cut back on over-processed snack foods.
Snack food consumption has increased dramatically during the pandemic, as people are at home more, within easy reach of their pantry at any given time. By scaling back on gluten, you’ll likely have to put more thought and planning into your meals and snacks, helping you reach for more nutrient-dense options.
Gluten-free (and protein-rich) snack ideas include:
- Carrots or bell peppers with hummus
- Almond butter with apples or bananas
- A handful of nuts
- Popcorn with nutritional yeast
- A hard-boiled egg
- Energy bites
Alcohol consumption and sales have soared during COVID-19. For some, drinking to unwind has become a daily habit, and at-home pours are often quite heftier than standard portion sizes. The body places a metabolic priority over alcohol, wanting to process it first over carbohydrates and fat. Alcohol inhibits the normal digestive process and impairs the absorption of key vitamins and nutrients. It also disrupts sleep patterns — one of the most important factors in weight maintenance and control. You may seem to fall asleep easier after a few drinks, but when the body has to “turn on” to metabolize the alcohol, it pulls you out of your deepest REM sleep patterns, leaving you feeling foggy and extra tired in the morning.
Alcohol is also a source of empty calories that can quickly add up, negatively impacting your waistline, and research shows it can cause inflammation, harming your immune system. After two weeks off, notice how you feel and if your energy levels have improved.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT TIMING
During your reset, try and go at least 12 hours after your evening meal, before the next morning’s breakfast. This allows your body eight full hours to digest and an additional four hours for restoration and repair. Research shows intermittent fasting can be helpful for weight loss. If you can add in a workout during the morning before eating breakfast, you may be able to maximize your fat-burning capabilities.
THE BOTTOM LINE
After two weeks of limiting (or entirely eliminating) foods high in added sugar, gluten and alcohol, you’ll be off to a great start to redirect your eating patterns toward more mindful, healthy choices. As you slowly begin to add foods back into your diet, pay attention to those that make you feel bloated and tired. You can add a note to your food journal and see what trends pop up. Does reaching for veggies with hummus leave you feeling more energized than your regular muffin?
Continue to prioritize foods that make you feel your best, and focus on adding more plants (greens, beans, root vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds), quality proteins (chicken breast, turkey, omega-3 rich fatty fish), and heart-healthy fats (plant-based oils, avocados, nuts and seeds). Along with regular movement, these dietary tweaks fuel your weight-loss efforts.
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