Stress & Weight Gain as a Caregiver

September 24, 2018

There are about 45 million people who provide unpaid care to adults and children every month and 75% of those caregivers are women. Most caregivers are experiencing high amounts of stress daily. In fact, approximately 90% of caregivers say stress has the most impact on their lives and on their health. In today’s show, we will share information about why caregiver stress often leads to weight gain and other health problems, plus some solutions to control stress.

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CASSIE: Welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition. The today's show is brought to you by Nutritional Weight & Wellness. We are a company providing life changing nutrition information to people in the St Paul and Minneapolis area through this local radio station, but also to people throughout the United States and even worldwide through our Dishing Up Nutrition podcast. This morning we have yet another great topic to discuss. We're going to be talking about the interesting topic of how to best manage the stress that comes along with being a caregiver. And it's probably no surprise to many of you that about 90 percent of caregivers report stress as having the biggest negative impact on their lives and on their health. So today we want to spend much of the hour sharing information about why caregiver stress often leads to weight gain and other health problems. And then we want to talk about what you can do to counteract those effects. I'm Cassie Weness. I'm a registered and licensed dietician. I've been in the field of nutrition for the past 20 years now and I have to tell you, I find that because of all the nutritional research being conducted out there, and it's worldwide, some really great research being done. I feel like I need to be reading and learning almost every day. And things are always changing. So you really need to learn and read the research everyday to stay on top of things. Here's one great example. Twenty years ago when I was just starting my nutrition training in college, I was being taught back then that eating low fat was good for us. It was the low fat, high carb message and we thought that was the healthy way to go. Now thankfully we know better. We know that the low fat message was really not well researched and frankly it's just wrong information. That voice you just heard is my co host this morning, Carolyn Hudson. Carolyn is also a registered and licensed dietitian and Carolyn has been practicing nutrition a little bit longer than me. So truly there are two great nutrition minds here in this studio with a lot of clinical experience.

CAROLYN: Oh yes. I started my first nutrition job in Canada in the 80’s. And I worked in a very remote area and I was learning a great deal about people's eating habits. So, throughout my life I've also been a caregiver, a caregiver of course to my children, and to my parents. But also other family members and even a few friends down the road already. So I know a lot about caregiving.

CASSIE: Yes. I believe there was a reason you were picked to be on the radio today and discuss this topic. You do know a lot about it and you probably realized, Carolyn, that about 45 million people in the United States provide unpaid care right to adults and kids. We’re not paid for this, so 45 million of us provide unpaid care. That is a lot, and it's no surprise that 75 percent of these caregivers are women. So, if you're a caregiver and you have found that maybe at first you put on a couple pounds and you didn't think much of it, but lately maybe the pounds seemed to be piling on. If that rings true with any of you listening, I'm sure you want to know how you can fight the caregiver weight gain problem.

CAROLYN: Oh yeah. We know that during high stress times, our adrenal glands release the stress hormone, cortisol. So, let's be honest, for most caregivers, high stress times are pretty much daily, sometimes hourly, and as our level of cortisol rises, your insulin levels rise too, so that excess insulin is considered the fat storage hormone, which means that every calorie gets stored as fat rather than what it’s supposed to do, get burned, right? And unfortunately, that high stress nearly every day can actually change how our hormones work in our body, and so when you're under that constant stress, your body makes way too much cortisol, which then leads to that excess insulin. And too much insulin equals that weight gain.

CASSIE: Wow. You said a mouthful there. Yeah, but that's all great information and I really want our listeners to understand this stress hormone connection. So I just want to repeat what you said with even a little more detail because I think it's really important for caregivers understand how stress first of all increases cortisol. It's part of that fight or flight response which is great back in caveman days when you were trying to escape being eaten by something, but when you're a caregiver and that stress is every day, so that cortisol level is high every day, like you said, Carolyn, that then increases your insulin levels higher than they should be every day. And you said it, insulin is a fat storing hormone, so that high stress chronically day after day eventually leads to unwanted weight gain and it all starts with those adrenal glands. It's our adrenal glands that produce that extra cortisol. The cortisol raises our blood sugar, the blood sugar sends a signal to our pancreas to send out a bunch of insulin to respond to those high blood sugar levels, and then that excess insulin stores that blood sugar as fat oftentimes. And our longtime listeners probably understand too much insulin in the biochemical terms leads to insulin resistance. So when you're under that chronic stress, you become insulin resistant and that's when you start to see that weight gain around the middle. We call that spare tire your tire insulin meter, right?

CAROLYN:   A muffin top I think some people call it. So, when you think about the stress of caregivers, there are just so many stressors. Around the clock duties, that's enough to exhaust even the strongest of individuals. And then often there are financial pressures and sometimes there were just some really strained relationship things, and one of the stressors I had caregiving my dad was when he didn't want to eat properly. Sometimes he didn't even want to eat at all, but other times he would have maybe a few bites of something but he wouldn't necessarily want the healthy things. So as a nutritionist, that was stressful for me because I'm still the daughter.

CASSIE:  And he's not listening to you because he's the Dad.

CAROLYN: It was hard. And even with friends that's happened. They wanted to go through a drive thru before we went to cancer treatment or something like that.

CASSIE:  Well, and I've even seen in my own family with my grandma, something I never thought I would see. There were eight siblings taking care of my grandma. And just the friction and the stress that has been created between the brothers and sisters in trying to figure out how to best care for their mom. And one inevitably gets the biggest load put on them, certainly. And then has to kind of dictate things and then gets the feedback that isn't always good from the brothers and sisters. So, there's so many ways that being a caregiver can be really stressful. And as I said earlier, about 90 percent of caregivers report that stress as having the biggest negative impact on their lives and on their health. And you all know that if you are a caregiver, you can't just walk away from that daily stress. So, when we come back from break on the other side of break, we want to talk more about how you should be eating, how you should be sleeping in order to counteract the effects that excess cortisol can have on your metabolism and on your weight.


CASSIE:   Welcome back to Dishing Up Nutrition. If you're just joining us, I'm Cassie Weness. I'm in studio this morning with Carolyn Hudson and our topic today is stress and weight gain as a caregiver. But before we jump back into that topic, I want to talk a little bit about the ADHD seminar that's coming up here. This is such a great seminar, so many of your questions will get answered if you have a child with ADHD or maybe you yourself are struggling with ADHD. I can tell you one of the many questions that I hear repeated often at this seminar from the attendees is, “Can sugar increase my child's ADHD symptoms?” Well, as Dietitians and nutritionists, we can tell you that from clinical experience that yes, it can definitely increase those ADHD symptoms, but I also want to share the research with you. There was a study conducted at the University of South Carolina that found the more sugar that a child consumed, the more hyperactive and restless they became. There's also a study I have here from Yale, which found that high sugar diets made kids who already struggled with attention struggle even more. At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we believe that a real food diet is critical for anyone of any age experiencing ADHD symptoms. So, whether you're young or middle aged or older, food makes a difference. And this upcoming seminar again is called The Food Connection to ADD and ADHD.

CAROLYN:  Yeah, so Cassie said before we went to break a that we would come back and we would talk about how do you manage the caregiver's stress without affecting your health. The truth is the caregivers’ first priority really should be themselves. It’s really hard.

CASSIE: Especially for females. 

CAROLYN: Yeah, why is that? But really you need to take care of yourself first or eventually you aren't going to be in any kind of shape physically, mentally, emotionally to help the other person. So, how do you do that? Let me tell you why it's really not easy. I've been in this position a lot of times.

CASSIE: But you do work hard at it because I've had conversations with you before on this. Take time out for your friends to just laugh and socialize. Sleep.

CAROLYN: Sleep's really an important one, that's for sure. But I really found that I needed to take just one step at a time. And so, my first thing that I always do is carry water with me. So finding a great water bottle or something that you enjoy drinking out of. And for me, I love the filtered water because it tastes so good. So, I carry a water bottle everywhere I go and I know that my kidneys and liver have to have sufficient water to metabolize fat.

CASSIE:  So, a good water bottle, that's an easy solution, right? Kind of a fun one. And shopping for a Yeti or some fun water bottle. And not only does drinking eight to 12 glasses of water a day help metabolize fat so that you don't have that unwanted weight gain, but it also helps your energy. So once you find that even on those nights where maybe you were up with your dad a lot when he was sick, if you drink plenty of water, it helps with that energy level the next day. And certainly as a caregiver, you need that. Now, before we look at some other possible solutions to control stress and cortisol levels, I think we should look a little deeper into what else happens biochemically that could cause our body to have sugar cravings. I can't even count on two hands how many clients I've had over the years that are caregivers that describe these intense sugar cravings, whether it's for cookies or muffins or donuts. What causes these sugar cravings? And a lot of these caregivers have shared with me that if they start, they can't stop. If they just avoid it altogether, if they can have that willpower, they're okay, but if they take one bite of a cookie, then they're eating the whole cookie jar full. And probably this resonates with some of our listeners out there today.

CAROLYN:  Yeah, for sure. As we mentioned, under stress, your cortisol levels rise in your body and as those levels rise, the cortisol levels can cause your pancreas, as we talked about earlier, to send out those higher levels of insulin and that excess insulin makes your blood sugar actually drop, right? And then it drops really low. So then what happens? You crave sugar. And you want that cookie or you're dreaming about it. The muffin or chocolate or glass of sweet tea or that Mocha Latte. Oh my goodness, lots of people are heading over to the coffee shop. And that excess insulin and excess sugar, what happens? It packs on those pounds. And usually the other thing is it makes us feel more tired. So, it might give you a little bit of a boost right when you have it, but then in a little bit you're more tired and more dragged out. You actually want a nap and you don't have time.

CASSIE:  Isn't that interesting though, to know it's not about your willpower. There is biochemistry.

CAROLYN:  So many of our clients go, “Oh, wow. It’s not just me.”

CASSIE: Oh, right, right. So how do you break that stress eating chain, that chain that has probably sabotaged you again and again into overindulging in the cookies or the candy or the coffee drinks like Carolyn just mentioned. I don't know about you, but lately I've been hearing a lot of people talk about this salted Caramel Mocha and I've been hearing radio people on a certain station and I love these radio people. But anyway, I don't know if it's a new thing this year or if everybody's just loving the flavor again, but this salted Caramel Mocha, I keep hearing it. So I went and looked it up and I didn't even look up the large size. I just looked up a medium, so 16 ounces. Not only is the salted caramel Mocha handing you almost 500 calories in that fairly small cup, but it's 16 teaspoons of sugar.

CAROLYN: Oh my goodness. 16 teaspoons.

CASSIE: I mean, wouldn't you think that would pack on the pounds, especially if you are going to these coffee shops and getting some food or drink, like the salted caramel Mocha everyday or even every other day. You will surely pack on some extra pounds.

CAROLYN: So if you are battling that extra weight gain and you're a caregiver, the association really is very, very clear. Constant stress equals weight gain. And to be candid caregiving may result in easily adding some extra unwanted weight. So have you thought of a stress management plan that would work for you so that you can avoid that weight gain?

CASSIE:  That's the important piece. This can be avoided.

CAROLYN: Right, exactly. But it has to be conscious. You have to have a stress management program. So remember in school we were taught to read, memorize, solve problems, but unfortunately we were not taught how to deal with stress that could be associated with caring for an ill family member or friend. So those years in school didn't really help prepare us to be caregivers and how to stay healthy under some of these long term stressors.

CASSOE: Yes, and so when we come back from our second break, we want to talk more about how can you get a plan together for yourself that can help you to best handle the stress in your life.

CAROLYN: So you are listening to Dishing Up Nutrition. We invite you to tune in next Saturday to hear Dar and JoAnn discuss nutrition for Parkinson's disease. They will be discussing foods that support positive brain function and foods that interfere with good brain function. Medications today have very limited positive results and often more side effects for many suffering from Parkinson's disease. Eating foods that support good brain function has shown positive results and no negative side effects. So here's a simple question for you. Do you know that Diet soda is a known trigger for Parkinson's disease? There seems to be a definite link between aspartame in diet soda and neurological problems. The more we know, the better we can do and we'll be right back.


CASSIE:  Welcome back to Dishing Up Nutrition. As Carolyn mentioned earlier in the show, I'm sort of the designated advertiser, I guess you could say, of our upcoming seminars, and we really have some great ones scheduled this fall. A little earlier I talked about our ADHD seminar. Now I want to tell you about our Menopause Seminar. So coming up on Saturday, November 10th, we want to invite you to join other likeminded women for our Menopause Survival Seminar. This is a one day seminar. There are three great teachers. One is Dar, the owner and founder of Nutritional Weight & Wellness, and she will be joined by Joanne and Kris. And those three ladies will show you how real foods can reduce your menopause symptoms. They'll answer any and all personal questions you have. They'll feed you a really delicious lunch and a couple of tasty snacks. I think it's all organic as well, and they'll give you great ways to get rid of your hot flashes naturally to get a good night's sleep without medication, to avoid the perimenopause and menopause weight gain and possibly most importantly, they will teach you how to keep your bones strong and healthy. All of this and a lot more in just one day of learning and fun. There's always a lot of laughter. I've sat in on the class a lot of times. You learn a lot, but you laugh too, and it just is a great day. If you want to sign up, if you want to learn more, you can call 651-699-3438 or you can go to our website at Now, before break, we were talking about getting a plan. Writing a plan, if you're a caregiver, to avoid the detrimental effects of the stress of the high cortisol levels. And hopefully you caregivers listening are seeking help from a counselor or your priest or your pastor or maybe it's your best friend. Maybe it's all of those people and that's a good thing. We know that traditionally these people are able to give emotional support and that's so important. The sad part is Dietitians and nutritionists have not been part of the caregivers support team until recently, and I kind of think of it this way. Good nutrition is more powerful than anything else you could do for yourself during these high stress times. I always say when you are going through stressful times, that is when you need to eat your best. That is when you need to eat perfectly. Eating real food is the most basic way to care for yourself so that you have the energy and the mental clarity to care for that other person.

CAROLYN: So, as Dietitians and nutritionists, we have many clients who are caregivers, so we want to share a self care plan that has worked for many of these clients and even myself, right? So I'm going to share my own stress management plan. So, in addition to the drinking water that I already talked about, I have to eat a number of small meals to support my energy and my blood sugar. So I know that for me it's really important to keep my blood sugar in balance so I don't have those sugar cravings. I mean I have been caught at times in the very beginning. And what happens is I go off the deep end with a sugar craving. And as you said before, it's induced biochemically. So, I have a real commitment to my health for this reason. So, I'm happy to say I'm not running into any coffee house to get a caffeine or sugar fix anymore.

CASSIE: And I think we need to stress eating those small meal several times throughout the day. And our long time listeners know it should be protein, carb, healthy fat, those three things at every one of those meals. That will grab hold of that blood sugar and keep it stable so that your cortisol levels don't mess with it. It's so important. And Carolyn, I've known you for a few years now and you definitely have that attitude of wellness. You've obviously made a commitment to your health and, like you've talked about, you have developed a stress management plan that really works for you.

CAROLYN: Yes, I really have. And during stressful times I want to make sure that I keep my blood sugar balanced so I would continue to have the energy. I'd be able to remain focused, remember important details and so I wouldn't be gaining weight. My commitment to my health helped me develop some self care habits. I started packing food, packing up my lunch and snacks. I packed up a variety of real food. That could be my leftover steak or chicken or pork from the night before, some hard boiled eggs or cheese along with some cut up fruit and raw veggies. I also packed healthy fats like nuts or olives and if we needed to rush into the hospital, I was ready. It didn't matter that the hospital cafeteria wasn't open because I had some food with me. And if you've ever sat in those ER’s in the wee hours of the morning, the only food available is something from that vending machine. There's not a lot of good things. Sometimes you can't even leave the side of your loved one or friend to even go to the vending machine.

CASSIE: Which, on that note is why I actually own several purses like many women do and I switch them out depending on the occasion, but one of my purses is very large and I call it my food purse. And I bought it at a point in time where there was just a lot of stuff going on and the kids were young and we're running here and there and I knew I needed a purse big enough to hold a small, soft-sided cooler to carry our healthy gluten free snacks with us. So, if that's at all enticing to any of you that you have to go out and buy a new purse. Make it a large food purse. Now, some of you are probably thinking as Carolyn and I are talking here, you're probably thinking something like, “Oh my lord, I am already so overwhelmed and now you want me to cook and pack mini meals?” Well, yes we do. And I know it's not easy, but it is so worth it. And I want to share a real life story, a real life example with you to help motivate you to get on the bandwagon here and cook and pack those mini meals. And some of you maybe know a bit of this story as well. The longtime listeners probably remember Tina, who has been here in studio with us and shared her success story. She started out as a client at Nutritional Weight & Wellness and she now teaches classes for us, but she's been on the show talking about how eating real food and practicing a healthy lifestyle put her MS into remission several years ago. So, you can imagine her eating plan is really important to her so that she can continue to keep her MS in remission and this is without any medication. She has kept her MS in remission. Her brain scans look good all through the power of real food. But the story I wanna tell you is what happened four years ago when her husband had a heart attack and he ended up in critical care for weeks. Now, Tina knew at this time. Tina is a registered nurse, so she wasn't practicing at the time, but she knew full well that hospital food contained too many chemicals, too many bad fats, and certainly too many processed carbs for her to stay healthy and even though this was a critical time, her husband had just had a heart attack, she was still determined to keep her MS in remission as she cared for him. So, imagine all this overwhelming stress of her husband being in critical care, but she still somehow found the time to prepare all of the food that she needed to stay healthy and she brought it with her every day to the hospital. I think another important piece to point out, and I know you would agree with me, Carolyn, is that she would go home every night and sleep in her own bed because she knew sleep was important. And she had a great relationship with the nurses. I mean they had said, “We will call you in the middle of the night if anything goes wrong or if we need you.” But she went home every night and got her rest and then would repack her food and bring it to the hospital, and the results of her commitment to her health are that her MS continued to remain in remission even through that stressful time and she maintained great emotional balance so that she could not only support her husband, but she could be there for her kids as well. And what I think is so very important as someone that comes from a family with autoimmune disease. She did not develop another autoimmune disease during this time because we know that if you're going through a lot of stress and you're not eating well, the odds are higher that you will develop another autoimmune disease. But she did not. And obviously or I wouldn't be telling this story. Tina's husband survived the heart attack and what's so phenomenal is that he started following the Weight & Wellness way of eating real food after he got out of the hospital. And today he no longer needs any medication. He is on no prescription medication and his doctors have actually said to him that he's a walking miracle. So again, I tell you this story because it is a great testimonial to how you as a caregiver can take care of yourself. Somehow, someway, fine time to pack that food so you can take care of yourself, so you can take care of others.

CAROLYN:  Well, it's time for our last break. So, you are listening to Dishing Up Nutrition. At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we are on a mission to develop a supportive nutrition community. As dietitians and nutritionists, we know it's difficult to change eating habits and to do so successfully. Most people actually need more education and more support from others who are on the same path. And support from family and friends. We continually offer seminars, one night classes and our two nutrition series, the Weight & Wellness series and Nutrition 4 Weight Loss program to provide that education and the support. This fall, the Weight & Wellness series is being offered in six, two-hour classes at three of our locations as well as the Weekend Weight & Wellness series.


CASSIE: I just want to share a really great recent Facebook post from one of our clients. This is what Bobbi posted on our Facebook page in this journey called wellness. “I have practiced the Nutritional Weight & Wellness way for eight years with great success. Now at age 65, my lab tests are great. Even my height was up one inch. Now, the biggest struggle I have is to get more people on board with Nutritional Weight & Wellness.” Isn’t that sweet? Thank you for those accolades, Bobbi. And if you have questions for Nutritional Weight & Wellness as to how you can get onboard, how you can start eating the Nutritional Weight & Wellness way, again, you can call the office at 651-699-3438 or check out our website. We have a lot of great information and recipes there as well.

Okay, so let's see. Before we went to break, we were telling the story about Tina's husband and through all that stress, she still made it an effort to pack her food and she really ate perfectly during that time. Now I will say, too, that Tina regularly meets with a nutritionist and I really feel like for most everyone listening that's a caregiver if you want to figure out how you can put the Nutritional Weight & Wellness way into practice in your particular situation as a caregiver, I think the best way to get your answers to that question is to set up an appointment with one of the nutritionists or Dietitians at Nutritional Weight & Wellness. We won't make you change everything up overnight. We'll take it in baby steps. I know one thing that I usually do is to figure out what is the one food habit that is most damaging to that caregiver's health and then I encouraged them to start with that. Start with that one food habit and give it up.

CAROLYN: That's a really great approach. I often do exactly the same thing, but I'm curious, Cassie, is there any one bad habit that seems to reoccur a lot?

CASSIE:  Oh, that is a really good question. I will say that the worst bad food habits can definitely vary from person to person, but thinking back, if I had to guess when it comes to caregivers, a lot of them that I've worked with are addicted to diet pop, right? I think it's their pick me up or they think it's their pick me up. If that's the case, then that is the first thing I encourage them to eliminate. And not only do I think caregivers reach for that Diet Coke or that Diet Pepsi because they think it will give them energy, but I also think that that word “Diet” across the front says to them that this beverage will not cause weight gain. Right? Keep my waistline slim. Well, I can tell you from both clinical experience and from the research that neither of those statements are true. And speaking of the weight gain back in 2008, there was a large research study done right here in our own backyard at the University of Minnesota. And this study looked at diet pop drinkers in particular and concluded that people that drink even just one 12 ounce can of diet pop a day. Now, back before I found Nutritional Weight & Wellness, when I was addicted to Diet Pepsi, I measured in 20 ounce bottles. So, I hate to think what my risk was, but this is people that are just drinking even just one 12 ounce can a day. They are at a significantly increased risk of gaining unwanted weight. Not only that, they're also at an increased risk of having high blood sugars. And this was with diet pop. And they're also at an increased risk of high blood pressure. So, diet pop is not good for our waistline, not good for our overall health. And it certainly does not give us long lasting energy.

CAROLYN: And of course, this may come as a surprise to some of you. So, I want to share a few of the reasons that researchers point to as the cause of this weight gain. So, when the sweet taste of that artificial sweetener in Diet soda or low-fat yogurts or things like that hits your brain, it signals your pancreas to produce insulin. And we all know we've been talking about that insulin a lot today, that tells your body to store sugar as body fat resulting in that weight gain. So, also those artificial sweeteners, they actually condition your body and your brain to want more sweeteners in your foods. So then what happens? You actually crave more sugar.

CASSIE:  It's sabotaging. The artificial sweeteners, the Diet pop. And I should mention, too, that the research also shows that drinking diet pop daily is associated with an increased risk of stroke and have Alzheimer's disease.

CAROLYN: Oh my goodness. That’s scary. Not to mention the weight gain that we talked about. Well, I find that if I drank enough water every day, I don't have those cravings for high sugars, soda drinks or high sugar coffee drinks. So, at Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we have had many clients who just stopped drinking soda for one month. And guess what, they lost anywhere from 10 to 30 pounds just by giving up their soda. An your brain, this is really critical, is made up of two ingredients, water and fat. It's essential to keep your brain hydrated because even the slight dehydration can cause the release of stress hormones. And that, of course, is going to damage your brain over time. Right now we realized that if you're a caregiver, you likely feel overwhelmed with your workload and you might be constantly worrying about the person you're looking after. Be aware that both of these factors can really take a toll on your brain, and as Carolyn just mentioned, our brain is made up of two critical things, water and fat. So, I want to talk about that fat piece a little bit more. When they look at the fat that makes up a healthy brain, the majority of that fat should be an Omega 3 called DHA. Now, if you eat fish several times a week, that's a great source of DHA. There's also a great supplement that we have at our office that is from algae that is DHA.

CAROLYN: Our time is up today. So our goal here at Nutritional Weight & Wellness is to help each and every person experience better health through eating real food. It's a simple, yet powerful message and thank you for listening and have a great day.


Hi! I just wanted to let you know that I found this podcast very interesting. I am a health and wellness coach for adults with mental illnesses and I definitely will be taking some notes away from this to use going forward. Thanks for this!
October 2, 2019 at 9:42 am


That is wonderful, glad you enjoyed this podcast. Thank you for listening. 

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