Every one of us has felt fat at some point, in fact, some of us feel that way on a regular basis. I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t had an issue with her weight at some point in her life. And it’s almost always an issue of not being slim enough. How often do your friends say, “I’m too skinny”? A woman’s weight is a loaded subject – there’s just so much emotion and expectation that goes along with it.
So, what does an attractive body look like? What is the ideal that we are striving for? Where does it come from? Who are the role models for that? If our definition of beauty is a prepubescent Size 0 who has been photo shopped beyond recognition, then no wonder we feel like we’re failing. Last weekend I went to a friend’s birthday party and saw their twelve year-old daughter for the first time in a few years. I honestly did not recognize her. All dressed and made up as she begins to flirt with what it means to be feminine – super tall for her age, gangly and gorgeous, she could easily have been on the cover of ELLE. And she’s 12! If she’s the one who is modeling the clothes that are being marketed to me, a woman in her 40’s, then we have a disconnect.
Then there’s the whole question of what we are putting into our bodies and how that has changed. According to the USDA, the American diet is now made up of 25% animal fat and 62% processed foods (much of it sugar and salt) and only 5% from fruits and vegetables. You might be reading this and thinking “well I don’t eat much junk food.” Sure – but you don’t have to be eating at McDonald’s to be eating processed food these days. Go into a high-end grocery store and you’ll find plenty of organic, supposedly healthy, but very processed food. Beware – that yummy yogurt might look healthy on the outside, but its been stripped of all good fat and pumped up with sugar to give it flavor.
And there’s another huge issue that’s not well understood when it comes to how woman gain weight and store fat – stress. Women are especially vulnerable to the impact of stress as we push ourselves to keep up with the ever-increasing fast pace of life.
Our bodies are actually hard-wired to deal with stress and for good reason. The fight/ flight reaction is vital to the preservation of the human race – when face to face with the saber tooth cat, our bodies know how to get out of there fast or fight the predator. Blood pressure goes up, heart rate increases, acid forms in the body so we don’t taste good if we get bitten and the bio-chemistry shifts up a gear to excitation – everything speeds up. That’s all fine if we can run or fight and then quickly recover and come back into balance.
Thankfully today we very rarely come face to face with saber tooth cats! And yet we face all sorts of experiences that create the same kind of responses in the body – difficult bosses, screaming kids, traffic jams, queues at the supermarket, noisy neighbors. Because our bodies are hard-wired for fight/ flight in the face of perceived danger, when we become overloaded by these simple demands, we quickly flip into a way of being that is not good for us, that ages us and leaves us out of balance.
So how does stress affect our weight?
1. We never make our best decisions when we are tired and cranky.
When we are stressed we do the opposite of what we should. How often have you gone out after a long day at work and then ended up eating too much, too late? When we are worked up we lose our connection to our natural, intuitive ability to know what the body needs. When we are tuned in, balanced and paying attention, then we eat what we actually need and want, rather than eating something simply because it’s on the plate in front of us.
2. Stress chemistry and weight gain go together.
One of the most powerful chemicals that gets released into our system when we are stressed is the hormone, cortisone. Cortisol increases our resistance to insulin. When your body has increased resistance to insulin, it secretes more into the blood stream to metabolize the food you are eating. More insulin means, you gain weight and have a harder time shedding it. When stress goes down, baseline cortisol levels drop.
3. What you resist will persist.
When you start restricting what you eat by dieting, your attention goes to it and you start craving the very foods you are trying to avoid. The history of prohibition is a failed one in our world. Tell a kid not to do something and they’ll do it. Tell people they are not allowed and they’ll find a way. Tell yourself you can’t eat chocolate and all you see is chocolate!
4. Eating while stressed means you are consuming stress.
Let’s say you’ve just had news from that person you’ve been seeing for the last six months to say they don’t want to see you anymore. You are sad, frustrated, scared of being alone. In that moment, you start scanning for what will bring you comfort. “Ah! I know – some of that carrot cake looks good!” So you sit down and in a moment of sadness, anger and fear, you eat. What are you actually consuming? The stress flavors of sadness, anger and fear! More cortisol… more strain on the body… more weight…
So how do we release the stress?
The women I teach to meditate, often find themselves quite quickly making better decisions about what, how much and when they are eating. One of my students says she used to snack constantly throughout the day when she was feeling overwhelmed and tired. Now that she’s meditating she is no longer eating from a place of emotional imbalance – instead she feels more grounded and so the neediness around food has gone away.
To get rid of stress, do the opposite of what you did when you got stressed. Instead of excitation, pressure and overload we need to know how to de-excite, settle down and rest deeply. Only when we rest can stress and tiredness melt away. When we lose the stress then we can lose the weight.