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The link between children’s schedules, comfort eating, sleep deprivation and weight management

For many working professionals and busy parents, the constant demands of everyday life can be overwhelming. Juggling work commitments, managing children’s schedules, and taking care of family and friends can leave you feeling frazzled and sleep deprived. This often leads to poor food choices and not enough energy to exercise, which, in turn, can make your weight loss goals feel unattainable.

If this sounds like you, don’t get discouraged!

In this blog, state-registered nutritionist and fitness coach, Corinne Zaffarese Elbourne, takes a deep dive into how the puzzle pieces of comfort eating, sleep deprivation, your children’s schedules, and weight management all fit together. There are real scientific reasons behind your weight loss struggle that you might not even be aware of – but once you’re armed with the right information, you’ll be a big step closer to taking back control.

Understanding comfort eating

Have you ever reached for that chocolate bar after a long, tiring day? This action is more than just seeking a sweet treat; it’s a response to emotions. Known as comfort or emotional eating, this is when feelings, rather than genuine hunger pangs, drive our food choices. Life has its fair share of ups and downs, and seeking solace in the creamy texture of ice cream or the savoury crunch of crisps is a common coping mechanism.

While indulging every once in a while is natural and even therapeutic, it becomes worrying when comfort foods consistently replace balanced meals. Over time, if these high-calorie delights become a regular staple in your diet, they can lead to unwelcome weight gain, and present a slew of health concerns.

Quick tip: It’s important to understand and be aware of the emotional triggers that make you resort to comfort eating. Try keeping a food diary and every time you reach for an unhealthy snack, make a note of how you’re feeling at the time, or of anything specific that may have happened to cause a spike in your stress levels. By being more mindful of our eating habits, we can recognise these triggers and cultivate healthier coping mechanisms, such as meditation, exercise, or even simple breathing exercises.

What’s the gut got to do with it?

We all know the scenario: work responsibilities are piling up, household chores await, and there’s a constant race against time. This mounting pressure increases stress levels, and we start to crave a quick (chocolate-filled pastry) fix. Unfortunately, the resulting weight gain from such eating habits adds another layer of stress, creating a relentless, self-sustaining cycle. But there’s more to this story.

Our gut, often labelled the ‘second brain’, plays a pivotal role in our overall wellbeing. A diet abundant in processed, high-sugar, or fatty foods can disrupt the gut microbiome. Since our gut and brain are intricately linked, these dietary choices can affect our emotional state. As a result, our mood disturbances can further influence our food choices, proving the deep connection between what we eat, how we feel, and how we react.

Quick tip: Always keep healthy snacks within reach! Nuts, fruit, dips, and yoghurt all make for excellent comfort alternatives to sugary snacks.

Children’s schedules and sleep deprivation

If you’re a parent, then you know that year in, year out our children’s schedules become ever more jam-packed. Between school, homework, extracurricular activities, and social commitments, late nights often become the norm rather than the exception. For us adults, managing our time is challenging enough. Add to that the responsibility of overseeing our children’s schedules, and it becomes a Herculean task, especially when we’re already under immense pressure.

Unfortunately, amidst this chaos, sleep often takes a backseat. The consequences of sleep deprivation stretch far beyond daytime drowsiness because a consistent sleep routine isn’t just about rest; it plays a vital role in hormonal balance. One of the most pronounced effects is, in fact, on our appetite.

Sleeplessness can escalate the levels of ghrelin, popularly known as the hunger hormone, while simultaneously reducing leptin, our natural satiety signal. This hormonal imbalance often amplifies hunger pangs, even when our body doesn’t genuinely need the energy.

Moreover, a sleep-deprived brain (especially the decision-making frontal lobe), tends to gravitate towards unhealthy, calorie-dense food choices. It’s like shopping on an empty stomach, where everything looks tempting! To add to the woes, chronic sleep loss can temper our metabolism, making it sluggish. This not only hinders our weight loss endeavours but also affects our energy levels and overall vitality.

Quick tip: Achieving a balanced lifestyle requires conscious effort and commitment, and prioritising sleep is paramount. It’s crucial to establish and adhere to consistent sleep schedules for the whole family. It might mean that you need to get super strict about switching off the Wi-Fi and taking away smartphones and gaming consoles at least half an hour before bedtime – for you and your kids!

Breaking the cycle

From a biological perspective, our brain’s chemistry and hormones (notably dopamine), naturally drive us towards calorie-rich foods. This inclination, originally meant to ensure our ancestors’ survival during times of scarcity, now clashes with our modern environment where food is constantly at our fingertips.

From a mental health perspective, our dietary patterns are influenced by a complex interplay of emotional states, past experiences, societal influences, and entrenched beliefs. This creates an ongoing internal dialogue where the logical part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, encourages nutritious eating, while our emotional limbic system along with the habit-driven basal ganglia often drive us toward less healthy, habitual food choices. It’s critical to practise being in a constant state of awareness, listen to hunger and fullness cues, be mindful of emotional eating or eating from habit, and proactively work to interrupt these patterns. By doing so, we can establish new, healthier eating behaviours.

In essence, the quest for health and weight management is a complex and nuanced journey. It requires a two-pronged approach to understanding our body’s biological prompts on the one hand, and recognising the psychological factors that sway our decisions on the other.

By acknowledging these triggers and ensuring sufficient sleep, we can pave a clearer path towards a well-balanced and healthy life. Always bear in mind that every step you take towards a healthier lifestyle – no matter how small – is a positive stride to greater overall wellbeing, meaning a healthier you.

And remember: it’s okay to seek help. Whether it’s through professional counselling, support groups, or one of Miverbo’s personalised programmes, sharing experiences and learning from others can offer new perspectives and strategies to help you navigate life’s challenges more easily.

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