This ‘sandwich generation’ of midlife women has a double whammy of stress as they are often still housing and looking after boomerang children, as well as caring for aging parents.
Many of the symptoms of the menopause – memory lapses and loss of concentration – only make you more stressed.
Some women even worry that they have dementia because of the forgetfulness when s3x hormones plummet during menopause.
According to new research, when stressed, mice are more likely to become obese due to a molecule in the brain that triggers a shift in their metabolism.
Here, Dr Meg Arroll, a leading psychologist, explains why stress drives us to comfort eat and how to tackle it.
One of her clients, Jennifer, shares her own story of how she cut out the snacks.
And Rob Hobson, a medical nutritionist and author, offers his tips on healthy snacking, even when you’re at your wits’ end. Reaching for the cake, ice cream and pizza when stressed is a common occurrence. But a recent study published in the scientific journal Cell Metabolism demonstrated that eating when stressed leads to more weight gain.
The researchers looked different areas of the brain in stressed mice – and importantly, when the mice also had access to high calorie food. They found that chronic stress alone raised insulin levels only marginally, but when the mice ate energy dense food while being stressed, their insulin levels were raised tenfold in comparison to mice who only had access to their usual diet.
The reason for this is a molecular pathway in the brain controlled by insulin – insulin is one of the hormones that helps moderate our food intake, so any disruption in this pathway can lead to overeating.
Our bodies naturally produce insulin after we eat, which helps our cells absorb glucose from the blood and also triggers satiety signals so that we feel full.
However, this study showed that in a high stress environment surrounded by high calorie foods, specific neurons related to insulin became desensitized – leading the mice to eat more and expend less energy.
Although this study used animals, it does show how insidious our current obesogenic environment is.
Why the environment is causing weight gain
Taking this research together with current levels of stress in daily life and the environments we now live in, it’s becoming clearer why rates of obesity have rocketed.
Not only do we have physiological and emotional reasons for comfort eating, the environment is packed full of powerful drivers to eat when stressed.
The food industry spends millions upon millions of pounds each year on advertising, food science and development to keep us buying junk. Processed food is far more profitable than freshly picked fruit and veg as it has a much longer shelf-life, can be transported easily and its ingredients are cheap.
So it’s not at all surprising that we reach for unhealthy foods as there are now countless fast food outlets on our high stress.
We don’t even have to leave the door to bag these treats – with a swipe of the finger, in most big cities any number of fast food options will arrive at your door in less time that it would take to cook something from scratch.
Our emotional needs can be met with the serotonin-boosting impact of foods such as chocolate, so why would we need to stop for a moment and consider if we’re really hungry for food – or if we’re instead stressed, lonely, bored, etc.
Emotional triggers for comfort eating – and how to deal with them
Associating unhealthy food with fun times and feel-good images gets us hooked from early on. When later on, life gets a bit stressful, our brains automatically seek out these foods for that mood boost.
Coupled with the fact that scientists engineer foods to hit a ‘bliss point’ – a magical combination of fat, carbohydrate and sugar in products like donuts – that triggers and addictive-like response in our brains, it really is no surprise that’s it takes a huge amount of willpower to resist tempting treats.
These eating patterns can be set in childhood – a scraped knee or hurt feelings are so often soothed by sweet or fatty treats.
This is why as adults we mindlessly comfort eat after a hard day at work – but it is possible to break these patterns by first understanding where they stem from.