How Stress Can Cause Weight Gain

Stress can have a serious impact on how much you weigh. Sometimes it can lead to weight loss. Other times, it can lead to serious weight gain.

A stressful event, like the loss of a loved one, a divorce, or a financial crisis may lead to weight change. Chronic stress may also lead to weight change over time.

illustration of man eating fast food in kitchen with text
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Why Weight Change Happens

Stressful experiences may lead to a change in habits. Someone going through a tough time may lose their appetite and skip meals.

Chronic stress may lead to an increase in appetite—and an increase in cravings for unhealthy food. Slowly, over the course of several months or even a year, the weight gain may accumulate.

Weight change may also result due to hormonal changes triggered by stress. The body's response to stress has been linked to changes in metabolism, insulin, and fat storage.

The Link Between Stress and Cortisol

Stress triggers a fight or flight response in your body. This response releases hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenal prepares your body to take action and minimizes your desire to eat.

Once the adrenaline effects wear off, cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, hangs around. Cortisol temporarily suppresses functions that are non-essential, such as your digestive, immune, and reproductive responses.

When you have more cortisol in your system, you may crave less healthy food options like snacks containing high sugar and fat content.

Stress and Metabolism Speed

A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University found that stress was linked to a slower metabolism in women.

Researchers questioned women about the previous day's stressors before feeding them a high-fat, high-calorie meal. Then, the scientists measured their metabolic rate and examined their blood sugar, triglycerides, insulin, and cortisol levels.

They found that on average, women who reported one or more stressor during the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than the non-stressed women. That difference might mean a weight gain of almost 11 pounds in one year.

The stressed women also had higher levels of insulin, which contributes to the storage of fat. They also had less fat oxidation, which is the conversion of large fat molecules into smaller molecules that can be used as fuel. Fat that is not burned is stored.

Excessive stress even affects where we tend to store fat. Higher levels of stress are linked to greater levels of abdominal fat, which can be particularly tough to shed.

This is particularly bad news because abdominal fat is also linked to greater health risks than fat stored in other areas of the body.

So even if you aren't eating more than usual, experiencing high levels of stress may cause you to gain weight.

Stress-Induced Eating Habits

High stress levels may also lead to changes in your behavior that contribute to weight gain. Here are some of the most common dietary changes people experience when they're stressed:

  • Consuming High-Fat, High-Sugar Foods: People experiencing chronic stress tend to crave more fatty, salty and sugary foods. This includes sweets, processed food and other things that aren’t as good for you. These foods are typically less healthy and lead to increased weight gain.
  • Eating Emotionally: Increased levels of cortisol can not only make you crave unhealthy food, but excess nervous energy can often cause you to eat more than you normally would. You might find that snacking or reaching for a second helping provides you with some temporary relief from your stress.
  • Eating More Fast Food: When you're stressed out, you're more likely to forgo healthy dinners at home in favor of fast food. Fast food and even healthier restaurant fare can both be higher in sugar and fat—with larger portion sizes.
  • Being Too Busy to Exercise: With all the demands on your schedule, exercise may be one of the last things on your to-do list. If so, you’re not alone. A long commute, hours spent sitting behind a desk, and time spent staring at the TV might leave little opportunity for physical activity.
  • Forgetting Water: You might forget to drink water when you're busy dealing with the challenges of life. It's easy to confuse thirst for hunger and you might eat more when you're not drinking enough.
  • Skipping Meals: When you are juggling a dozen things at once, eating a healthy meal often drops down in priorities. You might find yourself skipping breakfast because you're running late or not eating lunch because there's just too much on your to-do list.
  • Trying Fad Diets: Weight gain leads some people to intentionally eat less food than they need, or try dangerous fad diets in order to lose the excess weight. Diets that aren’t balanced with fruits and vegetables, protein and healthy carbohydrates can often be bad for your health in the long run, even if they look attractive short term.
  • Sleeping Less: Many people report trouble sleeping when they're stressed. And research has linked sleep deprivation to a slower metabolism. Feeling overtired can also reduce willpower and contribute to unhealthy eating habits.

    How to Break the Cycle of Stress and Weight Gain

    It can be stressful when your clothes don't fit well and the number on the scale is higher than you'd like it to be. And the more stressed you feel, the more likely you are to gain weight. It's a tough cycle to break.

    Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to combat stress-related weight changes. Here are a few strategies that can help you regulate your weight:

    • Make exercise a priority. Exercise is a key component of stress reduction and weight management. It can help you address both issues simultaneously so it's a critical component in warding off stress-related weight gain. Whether you go for a walk during your lunch break or you go to the gym after work, incorporate regular exercise into your routine.
    • Be mindful about what you eat. Paying attention to your eating habits can help you gain control over your food consumption. A 2011 review of studies that examined the link between self-monitoring and weight loss found that individuals who keep a food journal are more likely to manage their weight. So whether you use an app to track your food intake or you write down everything you consume in a food diary, being more mindful of what you put in your mouth could improve your eating habits.
    • Incorporate stress-relief strategies into your daily life. Whether you enjoy yoga or you find solace in reading a good book, incorporate stress relief strategies into your daily routine. This can reduce your cortisol levels and help you manage your weight.
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