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Is stress making you fat?

There are several ways in which your stressful life may be making you fat. It's an unfortunate truth that the more stressed you are, the more you may run the risk of being overweight. Yet knowing the 'fat triggers' linked to stress can help you lower your chances of worries causing you to become flabby.

There is a stereotype of a rake-thin woman who has worn herself down to nothing due to life's demands. Yet, while stress does cause some people to lose an unhealthy amount of weight, it equally causes others to pile the pounds on.

A case in point is Britney Spears, whose svelte figure ballooned as her life imploded. Just take a look at the picture on the opposite page to see how stress can change even the prettiest of pop singers.

There are several ways in which stress contributes to weight gain:

1 CORTISOL When you are under stress, the fight-or-flight response is triggered in your body, and this leads to the release of various hormones. You experience a burst of energy and a shift in metabolism and blood flow. In the distant past cortisol kept prehistoric women alert if approached by predators.

Today, the constant demands of work and family can cause your body to produce a hazardous amount of cortisol. Aside from other health dangers posed by being chronically stressed, too much cortisol slows down your metabolism.

Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. A slow metabolism results in calories being burned at a slower rate, and a person having a higher propensity for putting on weight.

2 CRAVINGS People experiencing chronic stress tend to crave more fatty, salty or sugary foods.

The foods you crave when feeling stressed -- have you ever wanted an apple when up against a tight deadline? -- are typically less healthy and lead to increased weight gain. So when stressed, avoid chocolate, chips or biscuits.

3 Storage Excessive stress affects where we tend to store fat. Higher levels of stress are linked to greater levels of abdominal fat.

Unfortunately, abdominal fat is not considered aesthetically attractive, and is linked to greater health risks, such as heart disease, than fat stored in other areas of the body.

4 Disrupted SLEEP The hormones, which regulate your metabolism and hunger levels, change when you sleep.

Studies by the National Sleep Foundation in America revealed that sleep keeps down the levels of an appetite-driving hormone called ghrelin. And it also keeps up levels of the hormone leptin, which prevents the body from thinking that it needs more food.

In other words, sleep helps you to keep slim, while lack of sleep can contribute to you being fat. Experiments indicate that restricting sleep can mean that your body thinks it is short of up to 900 calories a day.

5 comfort eating Increased levels of cortisol makes you crave unhealthy food, and the excess nervous energy brought on by stress and cortisol can often cause you to eat more than you normally would. How many times have you found yourself on automatic pilot in a supermarket filling your trolley with junk food when you're stressed, yet not really hungry?

6 Fast Food Nutrition experts believe that one of the big reasons we've seen an increase in overweight women over the past 10 years is that women are too stressed and busy juggling both family and work to make healthy dinners at home.

Instead, women with demanding lifestyles are opting to eat processed food and microwaved dinners and fast food.

7 Couch potato Are you too stressed to exercise? With all the demands of a hectic schedule, exercise may be one of the last things on your daily list.

We live a more sedentary lifestyle than past generations, and because we spend so much time in traffic, at our desks, in the supermarket or in front of the TV trying to recharge at the end of the day, exercise often gets forgotten and falls by the wayside.