Diet, Stress and Unwanted Weight
It’s enough to make you crazy frustrated, right? You drive your body to the extreme in your work outs, you watch you food and eat healthy, you don’t drink to excess…yet it seems you’re only just keeping your weight stable – and that’s stable at a level you would like to see decreasing! Come Christmas, it’ll all be a mess, because the extra food, alcohol and chocolates one inevitably finds in one’s mouth during party season will mean weight will creep onto your body despite any increased efforts at the gym.
I get it. The slow creep of weight is scary, baffling and really frustrating. I regularly oscillate between freaking out that I can’t control it and momentarily “giving up and not caring” when a much-desired snacking moment arrives. Other women my age seem to be able to keep weight off, or drop a few kilos if they do a little more or eat a little cleaner. But my body just loves the pudge.
Often it’s blamed on genetics or some version of that, such as “this is just the weight my body seems to be comfortable at”, but science is showing that the reason is much more interesting. It’s an evolutionary mechanism that’s really, really clever…..and a great sign post toward the life you love living.
When animals hit times of famine, the mechanisms of the sympathetic nervous system kick in. That’s the flight, fight or fright response. When animals are in this physiological state, their digestion ceases to work optimally, as the body reduces the amount of calories it’s using up on things that are unnecessary. The brain goes in to a state that Martha Beck has termed “Famine Brain”. This means that your body is now primed to retain every last calorie it can as stored fat and the animal is instinctively primed to binge of any food it finds, particularly if that food is high in sugar or fat. This does, of course, give that animal the best chance of surviving the famine.
A study in healthy young men showed that when they were put on a calorie restricted diet, significant numbers of the men developed binging habits. This is the famine brain at work. While they had enough calories to survive, it wasn’t enough to be healthy. The brain registered the drop in caloric intake as famine and proceeded to induce binging as a survival mechanism.
What is most scary is that, for most of these men, the binging habit didn’t stop once they went off the diet. It was one research study in which subjects really didn’t fare well in life afterwards! I’ll talk more about the crazy human tendency to stay in stress mode in Part 2 of this blog series.
The key to breaking this cycle of “famine brain” returns us to a common theme in my coaching – turning off the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) and turning on the parasympathetic nervous system (calm state). This tells our body to begin letting go of stored fat and not to retain any further fat. It will also cease to prompt you to binge at the sight of sugar and fat.
How do we do this? Here’s a few tips that will hopefully begin calming your animal self (and I’ll talk more about this process in the next blog of this series):
- Deep, slow breathing, evenly timed between in-breaths and out-breaths. Breathing is a strong trigger for our brains and no animal in stress ever breathed slowly and deeply. Almost all spiritual traditions have breathing slowly as part of their practice and it can bring a sense of calm and peace very quickly.
- Meditation. I get a lot of resistance to this from clients who’ve never thought of themselves as meditators. And maybe, if we lived traditional lives, in forests or on savannah’s, where we had to sit peacefully around a campfire once the sun went down because there was no light to keep working, meditation wouldn’t be so necessary. But in modern life, we simply push and push our bodies and minds through far more hours of work than our ancestors ever experienced. We rarely get enough sleep, let alone waking rest time. Meditation can help us centre in on what really matters, get our brains into a calm state and our bodies into a sense of relaxed peacefulness. For an easy introduction to “non-freaky” meditation, try Dan Howard’s Intentional Resting work at intentionalresting.com
- So some physical movement that’s enjoyable. Exercise has long been known to be a good stress reducer. If you love a tough, sweaty work out at the gym, then that’s a great way to use up adrenaline and move your body into peace – if it’s enjoyable and relaxed for you. If you’re prone to spending the whole workout thinking about what’s stressing you, or worrying about whether you’re losing weight, or sharing stories of woe with your gym buddy, it might not be achieving the stress-reduction you seek! Find an exercise outlet that you truly enjoy – walking in a park, yoga, tennis, jogging, swimming…..if you know it’s releasing stress and increasing peacefulness in your mind, go for it. You’re not exercising for weight-loss here, I don’t want a goal pressuring you on! That’s just more stress. Moving the body can get us out of our head and doing it in an enjoyable way further de-stresses us.
Are you struggling with weight issues? Does this info about diets and “famine brain” resonate? Do you struggle to de-stress? I’m here to help you sort through these things so let me know your story, in the comments below. I’d love to offer you some helpful tips or encouragement. We’re in this together.