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Does Stress Cause Weight Gain?

Stress makes us more likely to eat unhealthy, calorie-laden snacks, while most get less sleep when stressed. Find out what stress really is, and how to beat it once and for all.

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When you see a few pounds creep up or have a few stubborn pounds that just will not let go, even despite the healthier strides you have been making, stress might be the culprit.

But how does stress cause weight gain? And on the contrary, can stress cause weight loss? Learn the connections between stress and weight gain or loss here!

How Stress Causes Weight Gain

Stress is much more than just an emotional feeling and has a direct, biological effect on our body system equivalent to survival. And stress is not necessarily always bad, either. 

Stress caused by positive events, also known as eustress, is a kind of stress that can actually be a good thing. It can be thought of as a healthy challenge: An obstacle to overcome that builds self-efficacy and possibly self-esteem.

Distress, on the other hand, drains energy and emotional resources, feels very unpleasant, decreases motivation and productivity, and could even lead to mental health problems. Excessive accounts and exposures to life's distressful events can also compromise physical health, particularly by increasing the risk of obesity. 

The link between stress and weight gain relates to a variety of reasons, including cortisol release, poor sleep cycles, and anxiety-provoked emotional eating.

Cortisol and Weight Gain

Also known as the "stress hormone," cortisol is likewise a glucocorticoid, a hormone that controls the amount of glucose available in the bloodstream. When the brain senses or perceives a stressful event, the powerful hormone tells the liver to use skeletal muscle and fat reserves to create and deposit extra glucose into the blood.

This is a good thing when we are about to fight a tiger or run away from something we are afraid of: Having extra glucose in the bloodstream can help ensure we have the readily available energy to escape! 

On the other hand, if experiencing work stress sitting at a desk, all the extra glucose released by cortisol not used. And the body is not wasteful, so this extra glucose will be converted into fat tissue and stored.

This series of events ultimately means the body is breaking down fat and vital lean muscle tissue (which is the biggest part of our metabolic rate) and then storing it all over again as fat. People who have excessive amounts of cortisol also have a reduced sensitivity to the hormone insulin, which places a greater risk of developing diabetes and high blood sugars.

Sleep, Stress, and Weight Gain

Lack of sleep can lead to weight gain on its own by heightening the temptation of innutritious foods and imbalancing the hunger hormones. Add in the reprimands of stress, the risk of weight gain is that much greater.

Think about it: Stress may not be handled so well when tired. So to counteract the stress, you are tempted to reach for "comfort" food as a coping mechanism without thinking about the consequences. And while exercise is a recommended stress-management technique, hitting the gym in bouts of exhaustion is unlikely.

Only adding to the cycle, some people think late-night snacking will help them fall back asleep, but it really totals more calories and likely causes stress weight gain.

Feelings of Stress, Anxiety, and Weight Gain

When feeling stressed, anxious, worried, and other negative feelings, seeking out food for comfort measures is not too unlikely. Emotions have a strong tie and bond to diet choices and unfortunately, the chosen foods tend to be rich in sugar, fat, and calories and consumed in large volumes.

Emotional eating can be further fueled by dopamine, also known as the "feel good hormone." Especially in strong emotional bouts, taking to food can release dopamine and activate the reward and pleasure centers and potentially diminish the efficiency of satiety cues (or feeling full), subsequently consuming foods in excess.

The art of sugar’s renowned addictive properties can further instigate emotional eating and fuel the drive towards its intake. While these feelings may feel resolved in the moment, the cycle often continues and places significant risk of weight gain.

But, Can Stress Make You Lose Weight?

While the consequences of weight gain can be serious, so are the potential risks of weight loss and necessary to mention. Anxiety and stress can cause weight loss based on a number of factors, including by increasing metabolism amidst a "fight or flight" response, leading to gastrointestinal distress and nutrient malabsorption, and reducing appetite.

Despite the ramifications of stress on weight, it is essential to manage the underlying anxiety appropriately, including seeking professional guidance as needed.

How to Beat Stress Weight Gain

1. Change your perception.

Since stress begins in our brain, change your perception: Tell yourself that everything is going to be okay and that this too shall pass. Likewise view the stressful event as a challenge, one that will make you a better, smarter, or fitter person.

2. Focus on the now.

Whereas we cannot change the past or always forecast the future, we can live in the now. So instead of being anxious or obsessing over perceived future occurrences, pause, breathe and remain the current time. 

Even if something serious is happening, focusing on the present moment will improve your ability to manage the situation at hand.

3. Deter emotions with stress-relieving techniques, not food.

Rather than eating based out of emotions, practice stress-relieving techniques, including taking for a walk, hitting the gym, practicing yoga, or taking a warm bath. Also tell someone about your stressful event.

You might not be looking for solutions to a problem, but sharing your frustrations can really help give you perspective, and your listener might be able to provide some empathy and encouragement.

4. Practice positive psychology.

According to the Positive Psychology Center of Penn State University, positive psychology is "the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive." It is essentially the science of what makes us happy, opposed to what makes us anxious, and is commonly used in stress management.

Practice positive psychology by writing down two to three benefiting things that can come from this kind of stress. Also track progress throughout the practice, reflecting on how you reacted to negative outcomes and identifying how bounced back from certain circumstances.

5. Breathe deeply.

Breathing tends to speed up and become sharper amidst anxiety, but controlling the breath can help reduce cortisol levels when stressed, ease nerves, and allow you to grasp the present moment.

Simply breathe in slowly and gently through the nose for five to seven seconds, hold the breath for three to four seconds, then breathe out through pursed lips for seven to nine seconds. Deep breathing can also be beneficial before a meal, so take a few minutes to sit comfortably in a chair and and focus on each breath.

6. Fight off sugar cravings.

While that donut may grant instant gratification and can be enjoyed on occasion, it is likewise important to eat for health and fight off those pesky sugar cravings.

Enjoying a well-balanced meal can instantly boost your mood, while further benefiting health in the short and long-run. So combat sugar cravings by acting with a positive action, along with noshing on a nutrient-rich piece of fruit.

7. Work off stress with exercise.

If feeling stressed or exhausted, exercise is the last thing you want to get up and do. Ultimately, though, getting active can halt stress fat and weight gain. 

While it typically takes time to get used to an exercise routine, you will more than likely see results with consistency and naturally lose weight, too.

8. Ensure adequate sleep nightly.

As mentioned above, although stress can certainly hinder sleep quality and quantity, not sleeping enough can transpire more stress, heighten food cravings, and plummet energy to get active. 

So turn off electronics and lights, avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening hours, and cozy up in your preferred climate to help induce a calm sleeping environment to help break the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation, stress, and weight gain.

Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on January 14, 2016. Updated on April 29, 2019.

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