Bad Habit No. 5 — Eating at your desk — or in the car, or while stressed in any way.
Big Offender: Cortisol (a stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands)
How It Ages You: Stress hormones — automatically released by the body under all kinds of stressful circumstances — are antithetical to digestion in a couple of ways. First, the release of adrenaline and cortisol — “fight-or-flight” chemicals — diverts blood toward your limbs and away from your stomach and intestines, which hinders your intestines’ ability to break down food and absorb nutrients. As a result, digestion grinds to a halt and food ferments, sending unusual metabolites into the bloodstream, explains Kevin Spelman, PhD, a research scientist in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.
Second, stress throws off the gut’s acidity and, therefore, its ability to absorb certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12. As if that weren’t enough, cortisol also suppresses the body’s repair mechanisms. “By eating when you’re stressed, it’s as if you are damaging your body and locking out the repair crews,” says Henry Lodge, MD, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond (Workman Publishing, 2004). And finally, eating while stressed or distracted is also more likely to lead to unconscious eating, meaning you’ll be vulnerable to eating more than you intended or be prone to eating foods you would never have intended to eat under better circumstances.
The Fix: Slow down at mealtime. Instead of munching behind the wheel or at your desk, find a spot where you can relax and focus on your food and the pleasure of eating. If possible, eat with others whose company you enjoy, or eat in a place that makes you feel safe and happy. At home, create a relaxing atmosphere; set the table and light a candle, suggests Spelman: “Just as your senses assimilate that environment in a pleasant way, your body will assimilate food in a more efficient way.” Catherine Guthrie is a Bloomington, Ind.–based writer.