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How Anxiety Sabotages Weight Loss

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If you’re trying to lose weight, you know healthy eating is a major component. However, in times of high stress and anxiety, it’s common for many people to turn to food as a source of comfort.

“With the collective stress of the pandemic, in conjunction with the social distancing orders and recommendations, many people will feel isolated and lonely, which may lead to anxiety and depression for some,” says Dana Rose Garfin, PhD, assistant adjunct professor at the University of California Irvine’s Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing. “This, in turn, may lower motivation to stick to a fitness regimen and lead to overeating as a coping mechanism.”

However, while anxiety and stress are normal reactions, they don’t have to deter your weight-loss goals.


When people eat for comfort when feeling anxious or stressed, they don’t typically opt for a stalk of celery. “Stress makes us want to eat high-fat or high-satiety foods,” says Melanie Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area. “This is wired in response from the days where there was not enough food available or when you might be cut off from food sources for long periods in difficult times — for example, wartime.”

What’s more, when you feel stressed and anxious, your body produces hormones, which make it more likely you reach for unhealthy foods. “Stress hormones — such as cortisol — stimulate insulin release [which can lead to inflammation and weight gain],” says Garfin, who studies ways community disasters and negative life events affect mental and physical health. “This is to help activate the flight-or-fight response and to release energy to help your body get into action to combat a threat. But when the threat is mental, this can backfire and cause food cravings.”


If you’re prone to eating more when you’re feeling stressed and anxious, try these strategies:



You may be feeling lost if you’re stuck at home instead of going to work. You may miss going to the gym or seeing your friends. Creating a new daily schedule may help you cope with the changes more easily.

“Get into a routine despite the disruption,” recommends Garfin. “Use the extra time to try some new healthy recipes and stay motivated by using virtual apps to connect with a fitness community.”



Whether it’s a quick at-home bodyweight workout or a solo walk around the neighborhood, try to add more movement to your days. Exercise has been shown to boost mood levels and help relieve anxiety and depression. “Endorphins are feel-good chemicals that are released during exercise. These will be very beneficial to maintaining a positive attitude during the quarantine,” says Garfin.



Not getting enough sleep is associated with weight gain, so sticking to a sleep routine is important,” says Garfin. Try following this hour-by-hour nighttime timeline to ensure you unwind at the end of the day and set yourself up for a good night’s rest.



Connecting with friends helps to boost mood levels and keep you accountable. Even if you can’t see your friends and family in person, you can get on the phone or do an online video chat. “Talking to others is a must,” says Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, professor of health science at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. “It will help you verbalize your anxiety,” thus helping release stress and prevent overeating.



Accept that you may not make all of your usual healthy choices right now, but don’t abandon your plan. “Try to find the middle ground between giving up on healthy eating habits altogether and trying to be perfect about your diet,” says Greenberg.

“Food is a way to nurture our body, mind and soul,” says Garfin. “That doesn’t mean you should eat a pint of ice cream every night of the quarantine, but it does mean you should find some space for flexibility and self-care.” In other words, enjoy treats in moderation as consistency beats perfection when it comes to losing weight.



Meditation can help build mental strength and reduce stress, making it less likely you’ll turn to food to cope with anxiety. It’s easier than you think to get started and there are different styles to match your personality. You can even try a moving meditation while walking.



If you need help coping with anxiety or have signs of disordered eating, don’t be afraid to reach out to a healthcare professional.

Meet your weight loss goals with recipes from our Under 300 Calories collection, featuring meals, desserts, and snacks. Simply tap “Recipe Discovery” in the MyFitnessPal app.

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