For most of us, stress is a fact of life. Unfortunately, research reveals that it’s also a fact of fat. “Even if you usually eat well and exercise, chronic high stress can cause you to gain weight,” says preventative medicine expert Dr Pamela Peeke.

Here’s what happens: Your body responds to all stress in exactly the same way. So every time you have a stressful day, your brain instructs your cells to release potent hormones. You get a burst of adrenaline, which taps stored energy so you can fight or flee. At the same time, you get a surge of cortisol, which tells your body to replenish that energy even though you haven’t used very many calories. This can make you hungry...very hungry. And your body keeps on pumping out that cortisol as long as the stress continues. But few of us reach for carrots in these situations.

“Instead, we crave sweet, salty, and high-fat foods because they stimulate the brain to release pleasure chemicals that reduce tension,” explains Dr Elissa Epel, a researcher on stress eating. This soothing effect becomes addicting, so every time you’re anxious, you want fattening foods. With your adrenal glands pumping out cortisol, production of the musclebuilding hormone testosterone slows down.

“Over time, this drop causes a decrease in your muscle mass, so you burn fewer kilojoules,” explains Psychonutritionist Dr Shawn Talbott. “This occurs naturally as you age, but high cortisol levels accelerate the process.” Cortisol also encourages your body to store fat - especially visceral fat, which is particularly dangerous because it surrounds vital organs and releases fatty acids into your blood, raising cholesterol and insulin levels and paving the way for heart disease and diabetes.

Obviously, getting rid of all anxiety isn’t an option. But by sidestepping these seven mistakes, you can get your cortisol levels and your weight under control.

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