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Column: Eating healthier and feeling better are intricately linked

A WW COVID-19 wellness survey of 1,004 American adults found that 36% of you have added an average of 12.5 pounds since the shutdown began. Another, by Nutrisystem, found 76% of folks have gained up to 16 pounds. Not iron-clad science, but it seems logical that some folks find staying home and being stressed and bored leads to eating more.

That’s because stress is related to eating habits — both overeating and skipping meals. The persistent flow of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine can flip the food switch either way. For folks to whom it telegraphs “EAT, EAT NOW,” the prolonged high cortisol levels associated with chronic stress contribute to elevated blood glucose and elevated lousy LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar and blood pressure — and added weight. That’s why stress is said to increase your risk for obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

But the stress-food connection is bidirectional. What you choose to eat can also affect your stress response — for good or bad. As Grace Giles, an adjunct instructor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and cognitive scientist with the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, told Tufts Health & Nutrition newsletter, “There is some evidence that … stress could have negative effects on beneficial gut bacteria, and positive changes to the gut microbiome could have emotional benefits, such as a decrease in depression and anxiety.”

So, if you are stressed (who isn’t these days?) and gaining weight, you can reduce your stress level by making specific food choices, and you can forestall weight gain by reducing stress. Win-win for sure.

Reducing stress to stop weight gain

Much of stress eating is learned behavior spurred on by a desire to stimulate the release of feel-good neurotransmitter hormones like dopamine. You can do that by eating what you identify as comfort foods. The weight gain that results is a byproduct of overeating and of changes in your metabolism triggered by chronic levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which increases your appetite for sweet, fatty and salty foods.

If you learn how to lower and dispel your stress response, you will be able to short-circuit the stress-leads-to-eating pattern.

>> Breathe. Go to sharecare.com and search for “How do I practice deep breathing?”

>> Meditate. For 10 minutes of mindfulness, Google “Dr. Jud working with stress.”

>> Laugh. Check out laughter yoga — no joke — at laughteryoga.org.

>> Love, emotionally and physically. Visit psychologytoday.com and search for “7 Ways to Express Your Love.”

Change eating habits

You want to nurture your gut biome with high-fiber foods, healthy fats and lean proteins. That will strengthen bacteria that regulate glucose and increase the rate at which you burn calories. That nutritional upgrade will also affect communication between your gut microbiome and your brain (the gut-brain axis), which influences the biochemistry of the brain’s amygdala, the area that governs emotions.

Research indicates that reactions to emotional stress change depending on what microbes are dominant in the gut. The link between gut bacteria and emotional distress may be inflammation triggered by some of the bacteria. So …

>> Go for the grain. Make sure to get at least two servings of 100% whole grain daily. That’s easy with recipes from Dr. Mike’s “The What to Eat When Cookbook.”

>> Feast on fatty fish like salmon and sardines. The anti-inflammatory power of omega-3 fatty acids can help battle stress-related inflammatory reaction.

>> Supplement. Talk to your doc about vitamin D and C supplements to boost your mood and strengthen your immune system, which can become disrupted by chronic stress, and a low-dose aspirin to decrease inflammation.

>> Gobble up pre- and probiotics. Prebiotics feed health-promoting gut bacteria: They include barley, bananas, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, onions and garlic. Probiotic foods include yogurt (dairy and nondairy), sauerkraut, kefir, kim chee, miso and kombucha, a fermented tea.


Mehmet Oz, M.D., is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D., is chief wellness officer and chairman of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email questions to youdocsdaily@sharecare.com.


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