Take anyone out of their real life, put them in a spa, and they will lose weight. Alas, the day-to-day at an expensive spa is not a permanent way of life, and often the simple stress of flying back home is enough to start the pounds returning.
A woman I know spent an entire summer at a Canyon Ranch spa and lost a considerable amount of weight. About 18 months later, I saw her at a party telling the hostess that she couldn't eat because she had just started a weight loss program at a nearby Pritikin center and had to adhere to their food plan. The programs at both of these centers are nutritionally sound, well-researched and holistic. The participants are given psychological support, as well as training in how to eat and exercise to maintain weight loss and improved health. What these programs cannot do, however, is make life perfect for their clients. I suspect that, like the rest of us, this woman had her own share of stress, and in this less-than-perfect world, ate her way through it.
Why was this acquaintance unable to handle her stress without gaining weight? Probably because few weight loss programs have the solution to this ubiquitous problem. The triggers that make dieters and non-dieters reach for food are endless, and they range from a computer virus erasing our data to caring for a chronically sick relative. Distress triggers can also arise from the hormonal changes of premenstrual syndrome, menopause, chronic pain, exhaustion from too much work, too little sleep, or decreased sunlight. Regardless of its cause, stress often leads to the abandonment of a diet and overeating.
Consumer Reports recently published their evaluation of well-known weight loss programs. The top-rated program, Jenny Craig, gave the participants free food and counseling for two years. Do you want to know how much weight loss this comprehensive program produced over two years? The obese participants lost an average of 16 pounds, and this was the best program among the many tested.
Why such a miniscule weight loss? A stomach virus could produce half of that weight loss in seven days, so if the participants adhered to the diet for 104 weeks, shouldn't they have lost more weight? Of course, if they had stayed on the diet for the entire time. But a 16 pound weight loss over two years suggests that they must have stopped dieting for part of the time, and I suspect it was due to stress.
The Consumer Reports study was not set up to answer this question, but it is reasonable to assume that if the dieters encountered the almost inevitable stresses of health, family as well as the daily annoyances of dealing with computers when seeking customer service, they may have turned to food to ease their frustration, anger or pain. Since it is doubtful that the foods they ate under such stress were on the diet plan, the healthful eating was probably abandoned until the stressful event was resolved.
Eating obviously doesn't remove the cause of the stress. No food will make the sun shine through clouds or restore the hard drive in your computer. But if the right foods are eaten at the right time, the emotions associated with stress will diminish. In a study we carried out at MIT we found that our stressed volunteers had less anger, depression, anxiety and irritability after consuming a carbohydrate-rich beverage. When they drank a similarly flavored beverage containing protein, however, there was no improvement in their mood. The effect of the carbohydrate drink so astonished one of our volunteers, he demanded to know what was in his drink because he was sure we had added a tranquilizer!
Carbohydrates help us endure stress because eating any sweet or starchy food (except the carbohydrates in fruit) allows the brain to make new serotonin. Serotonin makes us feel calmer, and as a result we believe we can cope. Most diets insist on favoring protein foods over carbohydrate and rarely, if ever, allow carbohydrates to be eaten alone. Protein has no positive effect on lessening the emotional impact of stress, and if eaten alone or along with carbohydrate, can actually worsen it by preventing serotonin from being made. Thus the dieter no longer has the option of eating foods that will help her bear the stress-of-the-day; they are forbidden.
High-fat foods may obliterate the perception of stress. Some of my weight loss clients deliberately binged on fatty foods so they would not have to confront a difficult situation. One told me it was like excessive drinking, "After a while, you don't feel anything except fatigue. It is like being in an emotional coma. It doesn't help me solve my problems but at least I can pretend they don't exist."
If dieters are told how to eat to make stress bearable and still lose weight, perhaps they would adhere to their diet more consistently. It is true that meditation, behavioral modification, counseling and exercise offered by many programs help the stressed dieter. They help the way physical therapy helps relieve the pain of a slipped disc... until it doesn't. Just as the pain of an inflamed disc drives the patient to seek more potent pain relief with an injection into the spinal cord, the dieter, in pain from their stress, will seek relief by eating. And there goes the diet.
In my latest work, we acknowledge that stress is probably going to happen and tell the dieter how to eat when it does. One of the diet plans offered allows the dieter to eat enough carbohydrate throughout the day to boost serotonin synthesis. The carbohydrate foods recommended are very low in both fat and protein. (Obviously protein, fruits and vegetables are on the diet, but the timing of their consumption does not interfere with serotonin synthesis.) What distinguishes this plan is that the dieter is given the option of switching to a specific stress relieving food plan when dealing with acute emotional distress, such as bad premenstrual syndrome or very bad news.
No diet will make stress disappear, and sometimes stressful events demand so much of the dieter that weight loss at that moment becomes irrelevant. But a diet that allows people to eat foods to diminish the distress of negative events will certainly improve the odds that they will reach their weight loss goal.