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Are you a stress eater?

Divorce triggers stress. Trying to be perfect triggers stress. Chronic dieting triggers stress. A death of a loved one triggers stress. So do daily work deadlines, family obligations, countless errands and "to do's." And how do we respond when we allow stress to permeate our day-to-day lives? We look for an antidote to our emotional pain. It could be alcohol or drugs. For many women it's food. Too much of it, of course, leads to weight gain, which in turn leads to, you're right, more stress.

Why does stress make you eat more?
Your stress hormones -- cortisol and your alarm hormone (aka corticotropin-releasing hormone, its scientific name) -- peak early in the morning, at about 6-8 a.m. It is during this time that you feel most energetic, attentive, focused and able to concentrate. By midmorning, your stress-hormone levels slowly begin to decline, and by midafternoon you can actually feel the drop in energy and concentration. This usually occurs between 3-4 p.m. Biologically, your body is preparing to rest and, eventually, sleep, after a long day of activities. Finally, your stress hormones reach their lowest levels during sleep, allowing you to relax fully. By 2 a.m., your stress hormones are slowly beginning to increase, preparing you to awaken again in the morning.

This stress-hormone biorhythm once had a very distinct evolutionary purpose. It was geared to awaken us in the morning and keep us alert, energized and ready to meet the challenges of the day. It's natural to feel less energy as the day progresses. Consuming the final meal of the day in the early evening and going to sleep by 8 or 9 p.m. is in sync with the biorhythm of stress hormones.

Overeating in the late afternoon and evening is one of the biggest culprits behind stress-induced weight gain in women. Those hours between 3 p.m. and midnight are what I call the "CortiZone." It's the time when cortisol stress-hormone levels plummet. With thinking dulled, it's natural for mindless eating to begin, practically guaranteeing weight gain.

Today, we no longer live by our natural stress-hormone biorhythm. At the time of day when we should be allowing ourselves to begin to rest, we start up yet another day's worth of deadlines, rush-hour traffic, business dinners, and countless domestic errands and activities.

Frustrated and anxious, perhaps unconsciously so, women turn to food for activation as well as anesthesia from the pain of having to bear this kind of burden later in the day. By dinner time, it's no wonder that women feel like rewarding themselves for surviving yet another day. Late-night, after-dinner eating is a common habit of women who feel exhausted and overburdened. They're seeking momentary pleasure and relief in their favorite anesthetic, food.

How to balance your stress (overeating) hormones
Stress overeaters set themselves up for CortiZone eating problems at breakfast time. They either eat too many carbs at their morning meal, too little protein, or skip breakfast altogether. Lunch is often either skipped or skimped on; a yogurt, a small container of cottage cheese, or a bowl of soup is often the lunch-time fare. By the beginning of the CortiZone, most stress overeaters are feeling starved. But it is often how a woman plans for the beginning of the CortiZone that establishes whether she will overeat later on.

If you're a stress overeater, your goal is to achieve stress resilience. To do this, you'll need to make a healthy eating plan for your vulnerable time of day, the CortiZone. You'll also need to modify your daily habits to keep your stress hormones as close as possible to normal levels and avoid mindless eating (and then the unavoidable weight gain). Here's how:

* Acknowledge the physiological fact that you will become mentally and physically tired after 3 p.m., and that such a decrease in energy is normal. Try to organize your day so that you have fewer stressful projects and intellectual challenges after 3 p.m. Make things easier and more restful for yourself as the day goes on. If you have no choice and you have to handle a big project in the CortiZone, break it up into miniprojects that can each be seen as doable and less stressful.

* Beware of products that promise activation or calming. These "rewards" come at a very high price. Stress overeaters often turn to caffeine, nicotine, medications (over-the-counter diet pills), alcohol, and refined sugars and fats. All of these can get you into trouble, especially since they are usually consumed to excess.

* Exercise. Physical activity done at any time of the day helps to maintain a higher energy level during the CortiZone. The easiest way to both calm and activate yourself is through physical activity. Stress overeaters benefit from doing consistent daily physical activity. Aside from keeping your body composition optimized by burning excess fat, building muscle and increasing metabolism, exercise helps manage your stress hormones.

* Learn to regroup after an onslaught of stress by using your head as well as your body. This is where the Relaxation Response (regulated, deep breathing from the abdomen) and other forms of meditation come in handy. Your body can also help rescue you through the activation of beta-endorphins when you get up and move it vigorously (e.g., a brisk walk for 30-45 minutes). Even a two-minute walk has been shown to reduce stress. The endorphins inhibit the stress response and bring the stress hormones back into the healthy range.

* Arm yourself with a daily eating plan (see "The Golden Rules of Your Eating Plan A"), as well as ways to blow off the stress steam throughout. Plan ahead and know what you are going to eat for your midafternoon snack and dinner. Without planning, you leave yourself vulnerable to overeating during the CortiZone.

The golden rules of your eating plan A
Navigating the CortiZone safely and stopping the stress-eating cycle through good planning are essential to achieving stress resilience. To adapt your eating to life's daily, routine stressors (the work deadlines, the family dinners, a slight cold virus), you need a routine Plan A for the periods in your life when things are going according to schedule. Here are the Golden Rules for your Plan A:

* At each main meal, remember to include 55-60 percent carbohydrates, prioritizing complex carbs (whole grains, fruits and vegetables), 15-20 percent protein and approximately 25 percent fat.

* If you eat breakfast before 7 a.m., snack three hours later. Include a protein source (e.g., yogurt) as well as fruit, assuming you eat lunch between noon and 1 p.m. If you eat breakfast after 8 a.m., your midmorning snack should ideally be just a piece of fruit.

* Eat your midafternoon snack three hours after you eat lunch. This snack should include protein as well as carbohydrates and be low in fat. Examples: soup with crackers, low-fat cottage cheese with fruit, low-fat yogurt and fruit, or low-fat string cheese and fruit.

* Avoid consuming the majority of your calories during the CortiZone. Consume most (approximately 65 percent) of your day's calories before 5 p.m.

* Watch your timing! If you eat too much after 8 p.m., you'll gain weight. When women get too hungry during the CortiZone -- 3 p.m. to midnight -- it's harder to maintain healthful eating habits, particularly if food is a source of comfort and pleasure.

How to de-stress your eating: At home and at restaurants

At home
* Have an emergency breakfast/lunch/snack ready. Keep cans of Ultra Slim-Fast, packages of Carnation Instant Breakfast or cans of soy protein powder on hand. Stock cupboards with soup, tuna and canned veggies.

* Cook extra meat when making dinner. Then dice it for sandwich filling or to add to a vegetable or pasta salad.

* Buy the cut-up vegetables and fruits in supermarkets. You can use these as sandwich stuffings or add them to omelets and salads. Plus, you can eat them throughout the day when hungry.

* Break the rule of eating only at your kitchen or dining- room table. If the only way you have time for breakfast at home is to eat it in the bedroom while dressing, do it!

* Choose frozen entrees that have no more than 3 grams of fat per 100 calories.

At restaurants
* Order soup and salad first. You might not even want an entree. Eat only half of the pasta or rice on your plate. Or ask the server to put half the entrée in a to-go container before serving your meal; have that for lunch the next day.

* If you're eating Italian, choose pasta with marinara sauce (red sauce without meat) rather than a cream sauce.

* At a Tex-Mex restaurant, bypass the tortilla chips and cheese and stick to the salsa, fresh and steamed vegetables, baked, broiled and grilled meats, chicken and fish.

* At Chinese restaurants, try steamed vegetable dumplings or soup as an appetizer; choose steamed rice over fried; and avoid fried entrées such as sweet-and-sour shrimp.

* If you have to eat dinner later than usual, eat a balanced snack (e.g., repeat your midafternoon snack) when you normally would have had dinner. You won't be as hungry when you get to the restaurant.

When your stressors are not "routine"
An impending divorce or breakup. A death in the family. A blowup with your mother. What then? When your best intentions for healthy eating and exercise -- your Plan A -- are thwarted by events outside your control, you need to create a contingency Plan B. This is a transition period. Your Plan B will allow you to cope with crisis and continue a healthy eating and exercise program until you can resume your Plan A once again. Here's a sample Plan B:

A family member or friend is in the hospital. You need to be there pretty much daily. You don't have access to your regular healthy meals and snacks, your gym or even a chance to take your 20-minute walk. In the hospital cafeteria, avoid the pre-prepared meals and avail yourself of the fruit, yogurt and made-to-order sandwiches (that way you won't load up on mayo or fatty meats). Take the stairs instead of the hospital elevator. And take 10-minute walks or climb a few flights of stairs for a brief exercise interval. (With this Plan B, you'd pull together a 20- to 30-minute workout; and even if you only get in 5-10 minutes, it's better than no exercise.)

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