This stress article was the feature article in the third issue of "Coffee With Jim". Since the article was personalized, it contained the name of the subscriber at certain points. For now, pretend your name is June.
"Stress and Your Low Carb Diet"
I have to tell you about a really instructive
failure I had last week.
Let me set up the situation.
To begin with, you should know that I have a
constant background level of stress that comes
from needing to finish my PhD dissertation. Last
week the need seemed more urgent than ever, and so
my stress level rose some.
I also gave exams to students, and was grading all
week (not my favorite activity, and one that keeps
me from doing other important things).
Also, I came home one night, and the kids were just
out of control. Both wanted my attention. And my
wife, Natalie, wanted my attention too. So I had
three people trying to talk to me about their needs
(mostly all at the same time) while I was trying
frantically to figure out how I could get done
everything I needed to get done.
Then Natalie said she had to go grocery shopping,
and that she needed me to watch the kids. So I
mentally readjusted my plans for the night, and
started thinking about what I would have for dinner.
Hamburger? Or fish? Hmmm, neither one sounded all
Then Natalie, actually wanting to make my job easier,
told me that if I needed something fun for Nate to do,
there was a surprise in the freezer -- ice cream.
ICE CREAM. Ahhh. Sweet Ice Cream. Beautiful,
beautiful ice cream.
I have to tell you, I've been cruising along pretty
well on my diet, and wouldn't normally even be
tempted by the idea that there was ice cream in the
freezer. But that night ice cream sounded like the
most amazing idea I had ever heard.
I wanted it.
I needed it.
I yearned for it.
And when Natalie left, .... I ate some. OK a lot.
Ahhh. It was beautiful. So comforting.
Why did I cheat on my diet that night? I think one
of the main reasons has to do with stress. With
this example in mind, let's take a closer look at
ways stress can sabbotage a dieter's goals.
THE SEROTONIN CONNECTION
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that puts us in a
good mood. Prozac is a "selective serotonin re-uptake
inhibitor," and it works because it makes serotonin
linger in our brains longer than normal -- rather
than being taken up again.
So when we're stressed or depressed, one way to feel
better is to raise the level of serotonin active in
our brains. Our bodies know this, and look for ways
to raise serotonin levels. And one pretty reliable
way to raise serotonin levels is to eat carbohydrates.
Eating carbohydrates is a good way to counteract
the psychological effects of stress. So when we're
stressed, we crave carbohydrates.
Here's a cute question to help you remember this fact:
What does 'stressed' spelled backwards give you?
That's right, 'desserts'.
Do you crave desserts when you feel stressed? If so,
then clearly you're not alone. Count me in on that
Back in the day (perhaps the hunter-gatherer day)
our stressors tended to be more physical, and less
frequent, and we usually met the challenges with
physical activity (e.g., running away from a bear,
or physically fighting a rival).
It turns out that physical activity is another way
to raise serotonin levles, and counter the
psychological effects of stress. And it's a way that
involves no calories (actually negative calories!)
But today the things that trigger stress -- social
conflict being perhaps the greatest of these -- are
constant, and we are typically discouraged from
dealing with these stressors with physical means.
Social conflict is probably greater for
most of us than for most human beings in the past.
Life is more complicated. Among other things this
means that there are more ways than ever to
disappoint those who are important to us.
Also, most of us belong to different groups that might
disagree with each other. Perhaps your family is
Republican and your friends are all Democrats. Or
your friends believe in astrology and your teachers
don't or... you get the idea. This means that we
are often in "no-win" situations where we can't
In past times, to provide some contrast, human beings
interacted with smaller groups that were more or
less all on the same page on most issues. Thus,
there was less social conflict within a person's core
group of friends and family, and, hence, less stress.
And when they did feel stress from social conflict, they
probably were more apt to deal with it by punching
the other person in the nose.
So today, when we have more social conflict, and
probably more stress, we are bound to have a lot of
serotonin cravings. And when carbohydrates are
bountiful, and exercise is not, we are apt to have a
lot of stress-related carb cravings.
THE CORTISOL COMPONENT
There is another important hormone we have to mention.
too. Surely we can't talk about stress without
When we are in stressful situations, cortisol is
secreted in our systems. Cortisol is considered a
"catabolic" hormone. This means that it breaks
things down. And one of the things it breaks
down is the protein in your muscles, bones, and
Now why on earth would we have a hormone that
does that? Well, under some circumstances you
would be very glad that you had cortisol breaking
down muscle tissue.
For instance, if you were in the midst of a famine,
and you hadn't eaten for a week, and there was no
food in site, cortisol would help to make sure
that your vital functions continued to be supplied
with fuel, by converting muscle tissue into glucose.
You would need glucose for your brain far more than
you would need that extra muscle tissue. So,
among other things, cortisol proves to be a hormone
that is quite resourceful in dire times.
But this has some indirect ramifications for someone
trying to lose fat. A person with more muscle will,
all else equal, burn more calories than someone with
less muscle. So one way to improve your metabolism
so that you can eat the same amount of calories and
still lose weight, is to build muscle.
But if you run around with a lot of stress all the
time, cortisol will be constantly breaking down
muscle tissue, and you may lose some muscle mass
overall. And even if you maintain your muscle mass
through stressful times, you probably are doing so
with the help of weight training. Imagine how much
more muscle you could build if you didn't have cortisol
constantly tearing the muscle tissue back down while
you're trying to build it up.
So if you're dieting, and want the extra metabolic edge
that comes from having more muscle, stress is not your
CAN ANYTHING BE DONE ABOUT THESE PERNICIOUS EFFECTS
Fortunately there are things that can be done about
stress. And if you are trying to lose weight,
especially on a low carb diet, you will want to do
as many of these things as you can.
With that in mind, stay tuned. I plan to devote a
future issue to many of the ways we can deal with
In case you're curious, I consulted two main reference
works in writing this article. The first is "Natural
Hormonal Enhancement" by Rob Faigin. And the other is "The
Ketogenic Diet" by Lyle McDonald.
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