Stress and Weight Gain

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Beverly cut back her hours at work in order to care for her ailing mother. In addition to her work and caring for her mother, she had two teens at home that still needed her presence. Her husband tried to help out more but his work was demanding and called for him to travel frequently. Beverly usually felt rushed and on edge. On top of that, with less hours at work, finances at home were tight. In the past year, she gained 30 pounds.

    Michael was under enormous pressure at work. Several people had been laid off in the past few months and he was given more responsibility. He constantly worried about being the next person to be laid off and knew that his family would be in serious trouble if he lost his job. Although he ate right and tried (when he had time) to work out several times a week, in the past several months he seemed to be gaining weight.

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    We often think of weight gain during stressful times as our weakness. We believe it is caused from giving in to our craving for comfort food or eating too much unhealthy food when rushed or trying to accomplish more than time allows. And while this may contribute, research shows that our bodies physiological reaction to stress is also to blame.

    Why Stress Causes Weight Gain

    When under stress, our bodies go into “fight or flight” mode. Adrenalin is released to help us fend off whatever danger we are facing. This gives us extra strength and energy to stay and fight or to run quickly away. And although today’s stresses don’t usually require the same physical reaction that was needed to fight off dangers our ancestors faced, the reaction is the same.

    At the same time as your body releases adrenalin, it also releases cortisol, another stress hormone. This hormone helps in recovery from the “attack” and is what makes you hungry once your stress level has lowered. In the past, when fighting off an attack (such as an animal attack), your body consumed a great deal of energy and needed to be replenished. Cortisol aided with this, causing you to crave high-energy (and high caloric) foods to replace what you used during the attack. It also slows your metabolism down in an effort to help your body recover. But today, fighting off attacks doesn’t always require the same level of energy, and often doesn’t use any extra calories. Even so, the cortisol still plays the same role as it always did - making you hungry after a stressful event.

    For those under chronic stress, cortisol levels can remain high, slowing down your metabolism and increasing your appetite. Together, these cause weight gain. So, under stress you may reach for the cookies, the ice cream or other (fattening) comfort foods, it isn’t because you lack will power or because you are “weak,” your body is reacting to the stress you are facing.

    Tips for Managing Stress Related Weight Gain

    It would be nice to think that since it is a physical reaction to stress, overeating isn’t our fault and we are simply reacting to the stress in our life. But overeating to compensate for your stress, to relax, can also be a learned behavior. So, just as it is a physical reaction, it can also be an emotional one and, therefore, one that we can control. Understanding how our bodies react to stress is the first step. The following tips may also help you.

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    Incorporate healthy stress-relief strategies into your life. Exercise on a daily basis, use yoga, meditation or deep breathing exercises to help reduce the stress and therefore reduce the chemical changes that occur because of the stress. Recognize the signs of stress, such as irritability or muscle tension, and take steps to reduce your stress before it takes over.

    Eat a balanced diet and don’t skip meals. Keep your blood sugar steady throughout the day by eating six small meals-one every couple of hours- making sure your meals contain foods from all the major food groups. This helps regulate your insulin production and can lower cortisol.

    Get enough sleep. Being tired or not getting enough sleep can raise cortisol levels and you may feel hungry or eat to raise energy levels.

    Have healthy, whole grain, high-fiber foods around for snacking. These types of foods will help you feel full and help regulate your blood sugar, helping to keep you on an even keep emotionally. If there are certain comfort foods you always reach for, such as ice cream, keep these foods out of your house.

    When you are tempted to eat, ask yourself if you are hungry or if you are compensating for stress. If it is stress, exercise for 15 minutes instead or find a different distraction to keep your mind off food.

    Eat at home. When you are running around, driving your kids from activity to activity, running errands, working or caring for others, it is tempting to stop and grab something to eat, but these meals tend to be high in calories. Try to schedule your day so you can stop home and eat a healthier meal or pack yourself some healthy snacks if you know you won’t have time to stop home.

    Slow down when eating. Under stress, we tend to eat quickly. But slowing down cuts down on the amount of food you eat and gives you a chance to relax and enjoy your meal.

    Give in to cravings - a little. If your cravings are caused by your cortisol levels, give in a little - such as having one cookie (keep cookies in the freezer and take out just one so you don’t eat the whole box) or indulge in one piece of chocolate. As long as you can control how much you eat, there isn’t anything wrong with a small sample of something sweet.


    “Adrenal Health: Is Stress Making You Fat? Adrenal Balance and Weight Loss,” Date Unknown, Marcelle Pick, Women to Women

    “How Do I Control Stress-induced Weight Gain?” Date Unknown, Edward T. Creagan M.D., Mayo Clinic

    “Study Examines Effects of Stress on Weight Gain in US Population,” 2009, July 9, Staff Writer, Medical News Today

    “Want to Lose Fat? Chill Out,” Updated 2009, Dec 17, Judi Ketteler, Women’s Health

Published On: April 23, 2013