How to stop stress from sabotaging your nutrition

Posted on: Monday, October 25th, 2021

Category: Nutrition Coaching

Stress. While occasionally unavoidable and good for us in certain circumstances, in excess, particularly when it’s chronic, it’s really not. Hot take, right?

Okay, not really. In fact, we hear that so much it’s pretty hard not to ‘yeah, yeah’ the warning away. Life is busy, and demands are high. But hear me out on this one. 

We’re here to chat about your nutrition, and enduring stress has a real, tangible impact on it. And if you’re taking your nutrition seriously, investing time, energy and money to get it together, it’s a real shame to let stress undo your hard work.

So how does stress impact your diet?

It’s fair to say that when we’re stressed, we make decisions that aren’t entirely supportive of our goals. Generally, it leads us to eat more, eat differently than we planned, or not eat at all. And none of those are great.

There is good reason for this, though. Did you know that when we’re busy stressin’, the decision-making part of our brain is quite *literally* compromised? Our bodies, being the efficient little machines they are, re-allocate the resources typically used to build up and stick to new, healthy habits to manage that stress… and sends us into auto-pilot for everything else. That means we’re leaning back into our old habits while we handle the perceived threat.

That means that sticking to your new plan is a whole new kind of uphill battle.

And if you’re still able to nail your plan? 

I mean, there is a chance we can white-knuckle our way through for a while, but even when we do, stress is insidious enough to derail that, too. Even when we’re still moving regularly, nailing our meals, drinking a ton of water…under stress, our bodies won’t necessarily cooperate.

When we’re stressed, hormones like adrenaline, cortisol and ghrelin (the hunger hormone) spike big time. And when the stress sticks around? That constant hormone high affects the way our bodies manage the food we take in. For example, increased ghrelin means a higher than usual appetite, and increased cortisol inhibits our muscle protein synthesis (which means our lean muscle tissue breaks down at a quicker rate than we can build it). Yikes.

Okay, you get it. High stress sucks. Now, where do we go from here?

At Rebel, we take a two-pronged approach to stress management.

1) Keep the stress bucket low

Since we’re not in a very good position to self-regulate when we’re stressed, and those hormones are running amock, we’re best off building structural ways to keep our stress to a minimum into our routine so we don’t get to that place very often.

One great way to look at this is using the concepts of ‘drains and charges’ (coined by awwwesome Sam Miller) to assess how our stress-relieving activities compare to the stressors in our life. 

If you take a piece of paper (go ahead and do this – trust us!) and write down all the ‘energy out’ responsibilities we have on one side and a list of all the ‘energy in’ activities we do on the other, it’s easy to visualize. We tend to do best when those lists are at least balanced, so if you find that your list of drains way outweighs your charges, it might be worth thinking about how to work in some more cortisol-reducing activities in your day-to-day.

What this looks like is different to everyone, but what isn’t is the need to prioritize the charges right alongside our other commitments. Building habits around those ‘energy-in’ activities puts us in the best position to weather life’s stressors and see the benefits of all your work. 

And when the stress (occasionally, but inevitably) becomes too big?

2) Build up better habits to lean back into in those ‘autopilot’ times

The trick here is to retrain your brain by creating habits that serve us better and programming go-to routines that support your goals instead of working against them. That way, when your brain goes into that autopilot mode, you can still make some progress.

These can be things like weekly grocery shopping routines and meal prep times that make sure it’s easy to get our hands on what we need to reach our goals and keep our bodies strong. 

With those, some solid hydration and regular forms of nervous system regulation (breathwork, meditation or journaling, for example), we’re set up to brace for the rockier times and keep them short, so they don’t have the opportunity to set us back.

It all comes down to finding out what you need to thrive and building those things into our busy, extraordinary, messy, REAL lives, one step at a time. And if you need help building up those habits into no-brainers? We’re here, and we got you.

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