On paper, reducing body fat is simple. In theory, all you need is to pick a diet plan that allows you to take in fewer calories than you expend on a daily basis and you’ll lose fat.
Unfortunately, this seemingly doable approach backfires 95 percent of the time, but not for the reason most people think. We often feel guilty when we deviate from our programs, but don’t really know why it happened.
How did you make that choice to eat half a pizza? Why couldn’t you stop eating that almond butter? Why didn’t you go to the gym as planned after work?
The answer is rooted in how we respond to stress and sleep deprivation.
Chronic stress has a profoundly negative effect on eating behavior and metabolism. When you experience stress, the adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol. Over the short-term, an immediate threat such as getting in a fight, will spike cortisol and blunt hunger, while raising blood sugar and giving you energy.
When stress becomes chronic and you experience work pressure or small agitations over and over again during the day, cortisol is chronically elevated, which turns “off” rationale parts of the brain and stimulates hunger for high-carb, “comfort” foods that spike insulin.
Scientists theorize that this drive for high-carb, pleasurable foods is a protective mechanism that keeps us from being overwhelmed by stress because insulin is a cortisol antagonist. When blood sugar and insulin go up in response to a meal containing carbs, cortisol goes down, easing the stress response and helping us to feel more relaxed. Unfortunately, because the “comfort” foods tend to light up reward centers in the brain, they are very easy to overeat.
Elevated cortisol levels also impact ability to sleep, which leads to a vicious cycle. A common side effect of high cortisol is anxiety and a racing mind that impairs restful sleep. After a poor night’s sleep, glycemic response is reduced and our bodies spend more time in fat storage mode. Interestingly, lack of sleep also makes us lazy and increases our tendency to take risks, making it easier for people to rationalize eating unhealthy foods or skipping a workout.
Our central nervous systems downregulate in response to fatigue in the brain. Combined with an increased drive to eat, this lack of physical activity leads people to overshoot calories, impairing fat loss and often contributing to fat gain.
In one study, sleep-deprived individuals voluntarily increased calorie intake by 300 calories over normal. In another, lack of sleep led them to drastically reduce physical activity so that their total energy expenditure was much lower than normal.
The effect of increased eating and decreased activity is seen in studies that show short sleepers are at greater risk of obesity. Other ill effects of sleep deprivation are poor blood sugar tolerance and reduced insulin sensitivity so that your body favors fat storage from the food you eat.
To counter this, you need an plan to get out of the poor sleep/high stress cycle, while creating structure that keeps you active and helps you make healthy food choices. What follows is a ten-step action plan to make it happen.
#1: Have a set eating schedule. Instead of letting your eating be controlled by stress and cortisol spikes, take control of your food intake by establishing 2 to 4 set meal times over the course of a 10- to 12-hour period.
#2: Plan meals around protein, low-carb vegetables, and healthy fat. This combination helps blunt hunger, while laying the groundwork for better sleep and improved metabolic function.
#3: Choose the least-worst option. Pre-planned meals aren’t always an option. When you have to eat out, make the extra effort to get a lot of protein, water, and fibrous fruits and veggies.
#4: Do a food journal. Track your food intake so that you have raw data you can use to troubleshoot your diet when sleep deprived or under stress.
#5: Get your workout in. Instead of bagging your workout when tired, call a training partner or take a yoga or group fitness class.
#6: Get your steps in. Avoid camping out on the couch by wearing an activity tracker and shooting for 10,000 steps a day minimum.
#7: Keep workouts short and sweet. Long workouts raise cortisol and lead to low efforts and diminishing returns. Instead, keep workouts to less than hour (45 minutes is perfect for most stressed/fatigued individuals) and focus on high-quality efforts by lifting weights and doing intervals.
#8: Reduce stress before eating. Zero in on the point of eating: To nourish your body, not relieve stress. Try deep breathing, meditation, or other mind-body activity to lower cortisol prior to chowing down.
#9: Fix your sleep hygiene. Set yourself up for a restful night’s sleep by having a set bedtime and avoiding stimulating activities in the hour before bed.
#10: Eat mindfully. Mindful eating shifts you away from reward-driven eating, which occurs when satisfying brain chemicals respond to the action of eating pleasurable foods. Here are ten tips for mindful eating.