The Barnes & Noble Review
Stress has been blamed as a contributing factor in everything from heart attacks and immune disorders to mental health problems and the common cold. But did you know it could also make you fat? Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., has spent years at the National Institutes of Health investigating the link between stress and fat, particularly in women over 40. Recognized as a leading expert on nutrition and stress, Dr. Peeke has been interviewed by Newsweek, "Nightline," CNN, and Oprah and is the current medical correspondent for PBS's "Health Week." And now the results of Peeke's groundbreaking work, along with a plan to avoid and defeat the toxic effects of stress, can be found in her new book, Fight Fat after Forty.
Dr. Peeke begins by examining the unique stresses that come to bear on women in their 40s: teenaged children, elderly parents, career, illness, and menopause. In addition, these women experience the third consecutive downturn in their metabolism in as many decades as well as hormonal changes that can have a profound effect on body fat and weight. Ironically, attempts to diet, which often follow, only contribute to the stress.
Dr. Peeke points out that stress is a desired reaction that is essential to life. But the loss of any reasonable ability to express stress physically (the fight or flight reaction) has made it toxic, converting it from a physically expressed stress to a mental one. Plus, the physiological effects of stress on the body can, and often do, trigger an increased appetite. And the changing hormonal levels created by the onset of perimenopause can shift fat storage from the usual sites -- hips, thighs, and buttocks -- to the abdomen, where it can be deposited in two different places: above the abdominal wall (what Peeke calls the "menopot") or around the abdominal organs. It is this latter fat deposit that is the most dangerous, and what Peeke calls "Toxic Weight."
In studying the fat-stress connection, Peeke has developed three stress-beating profiles that take into consideration the genetic and environmental factors that influence an individual's ability to adapt to stress. These are the Stress Resilient (the ideal goal), the Stress Overeaters, and the Stress Undereaters. Peeke points out that many women move in and out of different profiles at different points in their life and may even have some overlapping. But almost everyone has one dominant profile that they return to and stay in the majority of the time. Understanding the elements that characterize the three profiles enables women to identify dangerous habits and problematic areas that can contribute to Toxic Weight.
Understanding the nature of Toxic Weight and how it is accumulated is only half the battle. To overcome it is where the real work comes in. Peeke makes the process a lot easier by presenting a "blueprint for a healthy lifestyle." This blueprint is a many-pronged program that includes coping strategies to aid in adapting to stress without overeating, appropriate and balanced eating that includes reasonable portions and wise food choices, and exercises designed to jump-start that slowed-down metabolism.
On nutrition, Peeke makes a distinction between high-quality, low-stress foods, such as an apple, and low-quality, high-stress foods that, although they may appear healthy on the surface, can actually be harmful, such as a fat-free cookie. Included in the book are nutrition source tables that list foods according to their levels of quality and stress. Peeke also discusses learning to eat more slowly and savor flavors. She explains how when you eat something can matter just as much as what you eat when dealing with a midlife metabolism. She also gives a detailed process for calculating individual caloric needs and provides a week's sample menu. Nutritional solutions for perimenopausal problems are also included.
In discussing the development of an appropriate exercise program, Peeke identifies the forms of exercise that work best in this stage of life, which include walking, weight training, and yoga. She walks readers through an assessment of strength and stretchability so they can choose which level of exercise to start with. There are step-by-step instructions and pictures outlining several exercises, and weekly routines are mapped out to meet the unique needs of each of the stress profiles.
To turn stress healthy, Peeke provides several strategies for regrouping and working past obstacles that may trigger stress eating, including some exercises that can provide that all-important physical outlet. The coping mechanisms alone make reading this book worthwhile. And the personal experiences of other women, which are shared throughout the book, provide a welcome anecdotal reinforcement of the principles Peeke puts forth.