It’s been a decade since I left my career as a business reporter to work in the health and wellness industry. Back then, I was a 20-something who had lost 45 pounds and discovered a passion for healthy living as a way to keep it off. Today, I’m a health coach, yoga instructor, and best-selling author who (literally) wrote the book on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to weight loss.
When I started my health-coaching practice back in 2014, I initially stuck with what I knew: the traditional “calories in, calories out” and “move more, eat less” advice. But weight loss is more complicated than that for a number of reasons, so a couple of years ago, I started to shift away from that model.
With some of my clients who had been struggling to lose weight, I began to suspect that there was more going on than met the eye, so I encouraged some of them to ignore the goal of weight loss entirely.
Instead, we focused on managing the stress they’d been ignoring, and soon, losing weight became a whole lot easier. Other healthy habits started to come more easily too—like sleeping through the night, finding the energy to exercise, and cooking a healthy meal after a long day of work.
This is what happens when you start to work with your body instead of fighting yourself every step of the way. When you’re buried underneath stress, everything seems harder. But when you prioritize emotional health, strategically say “no,” and find ways to cope that don’t involve diving face-first into a bag of dill pickle potato chips, you can free up the space and energy you need to feel truly healthy and lose weight, if that’s what your goal is.
When you’re stressed, nothing else really matters—not according to your body.
If you’re trying to lose weight while you’re chronically stressed, it’s like trying to run a marathon while giving someone a piggyback ride. Sure, you might make it across the finish line, but you made it a lot harder than it needed to be.
“I see patients all the time who have high stress levels, and they struggle with weight loss,” says Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., FTOS, a licensed psychologist specializing in health and wellness. There’s a reason for this: When your sympathetic nervous system is stuck in “on” mode, it’s like your body’s smoke alarm is constantly going off. In this state, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else, and it’s hard to determine when something is truly alarming.
Here’s why you might want to focus less on counting calories and more on managing stress if you’re trying to lose weight.
Stress makes everything seem harder.
We have a finite amount of energy and hours in the day. When we have to deal with stressful situations or cope with their aftermath, we have less time for healthy habits. We might struggle with sleep, we don’t meal-plan as frequently, we skip workouts—which only adds to our stress.
And if we are doing those things? “It’s going to be harder to lose weight,” Goldman says. “Stress produces the hormone cortisol, and cortisol has also been linked to triggering cravings for comfort foods.” In addition, stress increases insulin levels, which impacts your ability to burn off those comfort foods.
Whenever you start to plateau, it’s a good idea to take a step back and see where you are in life. Sometimes the scale gets stuck even if you’re eating a nutritious diet and keeping up with your workouts. Your body thinks that you need to hold onto those extra calories to deal with the stress.
Stress erodes self-control.
Stress depletes the energy you would otherwise use to exert self-control. Let’s say your boss is being a pain all day, and someone offers you a cupcake in the afternoon—you’ll find it a lot harder to say “no.” Our impulse control takes a hit when we feel distressed, so we look for ways to feel better—and cupcakes are an easy answer.
If you’re chronically stressed, your self-control will repeatedly come under fire from any number of sources: traffic, spilled coffee, crossed signals over school pickup… you name it.
“We all deal with daily stressors (life happens!), but if we have our stress levels kind of under control, then when something stressful does happen, it’s just a little bump and comes back down,” Goldman says.
And here’s how you can start to deal with stress to help your healthy habits feel more manageable.
Admit that you’re stressed.
You can’t pour from an empty cup, and chronic stress drains your cup—once you start to manage it, all your health goals may feel easier. “If you feel like you have a well-balanced life and you’re happier, it’s easier to be able to follow through with other types of behaviors,” Goldman says.
Hold steady—or scale back.
During hectic times, I often recommend clients do less. By scaling back slightly—to three runs a week instead of five, 30 minutes of yoga instead of 60, or cooking at home every other night—you can set yourself up to succeed, which builds self-confidence and helps alleviate the stress of trying to fit too much in. “By doing that, you’re participating in good health behaviors that also promote weight loss and maintenance,” Goldman says.
Shift your focus to stress relief.
Weight is just a number, and giving it too much power can be stressful. “If we take that piece of the equation out, and we look at health behaviors—water consumption, what we eat, our activity level, our sleep and stress levels—we’re going to lose weight, if that’s our goal,” Goldman says. “If we’re completely focused on a number that’s out of our control, then we’re just going to be creating more stress.”
Make time for play.
Self-care can ease stress, but we sometimes forget it can include more than fitness and nutrition. I often recommend clients take up a hobby that has nothing to do with weight loss. Hobbies can reduce stress, and studies have shown that participating in leisure activities is linked to a lower body mass index.
Start and end your day with calm.
Goldman encourages patients to set the tone for the day with a few minutes of relaxation, like yoga, meditation, or diaphragmatic breathing, all of which can help lower stress levels. “If we’re not participating in the daily coping mechanisms, relaxation techniques, or “me time” that helps us keep our stress level down, our stress keeps adding up,” she says. Winding down at the end of the day can help you sleep, which in turn will help tomorrow feel a little less stressful, she adds.
Stepfanie Romine is an ACE-certified health coach, fitness nutrition specialist, and registered yoga teacher based in the mountains near Asheville, N.C. She has co-authored several books about healthy living, including The No Meat Athlete Cookbook. Her first solo cookbook, Cooking with Healing Mushrooms, is out now. Find her at The Flexible Kitchen or connect with her via Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.