STRESS WILL RUIN ANY PALEO MEAL
Most people who adopt a particular diet for their health tend only to think in terms of either how much they are eating, or what foods they are/are not eating. These are important details. However, there may be an even more important piece to the puzzle.
I firmly believe that stress has become the biggest factor in modern people’s declining health. It’s even worse than the stressors of poor diet and lack of exercise. Adopting a Paleo-type diet as we recommend is a great step in the right direction, but if you do not reduce your overall stress load, it’s unlikely that you’ll see the results you want.
I could write an entire book on this, but for today I just want to feature a nutrition related point: get the stress out of your mealtimes.
In our fast-paced world, we never seem to have enough time to do everything. It’s a big reason why convenience foods and grab-n-go eating is so common. Most people today no longer budget time to cook real meals.
Worse yet, most people never sit down for a relaxed meal – eating is typically done while you are doing something else. We may see this multi-tasking as a badge of ambition, but it’s actually one of the mini-steps we make every day pushing us closer to chronic disease.
Studies have shown repeatedly that multi-tasking leads to higher levels of stress hormones, including cortisol. It’s also been shown that people feel like they are getting more done, but in actuality are doing less.
Even if you are not busy working while eating, if you are feeling stressed, it will have the same effect. Eating while watching the news or reading the newspaper is a great example.
The sympathetic nervous system is activated to a greater degree when you are stressed, and one of the first things it does is shut down digestion. This includes impairing the release of stomach acid and digestive enzymes. This makes perfect sense if we lived in our natural environment as hunter-gatherers. If you need to run from a bear, digestion becomes a low priority.
With digestion ramped down, the food you eat ferments or putrefies leading to gas or bloating. Less nutrients are absorbed, which over time leads to declining health and poor recovery. A viscous cycle ensues where low nutrients lead to low stomach acid production, leading to even poorer digestion. High cortisol also damages the gut lining which further impairs nutrient absorption.
I’ll also add a quick reminder at this point that high cortisol levels also impair reproduction – lower testosterone and erectile dysfunction in men; disruption of normal ovulation and menstrual cycles in women.
I’d guess that 9 out of 10 folks who switch to a Paleo diet keep their rushed eating ways. One of the main reasons for switching to a Paleo diet is to increase the nutrients in the diet (meat, veggies) and to remove the toxins (grains, etc) that can cause gut damage. But stressed eating leads to potential gut damage and an impaired absorption of nutrients, even if the food is “Paleo”!
For fat loss, it’s a double-whammy. One – higher cortisol levels lead directly to higher blood sugar levels which promote fat storage even if you are eating “clean”. Two – low absorption of nutrients makes it difficult for the body to burn fat.
My suggestion: slow down your meals.
If this means eating fewer daily meals, then that is fine and maybe better for you anyway. Food preparation helps prepare for digestion by activating the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. Sit down for a relaxed meal, even if it’s at your desk – take a break. Chew each bite thoroughly, then set your fork down between each bite. Once you are through, try to have a “rest and digest” period if at all possible. The more steps you can make toward better digestion will mean that you can reap more of the rewards of your nutrition and training.
Anderson, P. (2001). Study: Multitasking is counterproductive
Epel E, Lapidus R, McEwen B, Brownell K. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: A laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2001;26(1):37-49.
Jones DS, Quinn S (eds). Textbook of Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor, Wash.: Institute for Functional Medicine; 2006.
Weinstein R. The Stress Effect. New York: Avery-Penguin Group; 2004.
Sher L. Type D personality: The heart, stress, and cortisol. QJM. 2005;98(5):323-329.
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