How Does Stress Affect Weight Gain? Everything You Need to Know


People may not be aware of this but stress, contrary to popular belief, can affect the weight negatively. Generally, stress can add more poundage than not. It all has something to do with the body’s physiology and there are several ways on how stress can contribute to those added inches around the waist.

Cortisol, the stress hormone, is the main reason why stress will affect the weight. When people are under stress, the body goes into a “fight or flight” mode where it responds by releasing various hormones, especially cortisol. With the presence of this hormone in the bloodstream, the craving for food, even the unhealthy ones, becomes strong. People tend to gravitate towards snacks that are rich in sugars and fats which will invariably lead to weight gain.

The stress can be of any kind, whether it be work related or some personal issues. The body will always respond to stress as it thinks it’s being subjected to harm or danger. It’s a natural response to fight back and when this happens, the individual will feel a surge of energy, metabolism shifts, increased blood flow, and other changes. All these reactions will affect body functions, including digestion and appetite and ultimately, the weight.

How Does Stress Affect Weight Gain?

Chronic stress will affect the health negatively. Almost all systems of the body will suffer, and the risks of health diseases will increase. Most affected will be the cardiovascular and digestive systems. As mentioned earlier, constant stress will trigger the release of hormones that will eventually affect the weight. And the hormone cortisol will be the main reason that’s responsible for weight gain. Here’s how this hormone will affect the weight:

It Has an Impact on the Hormones

The brain will respond when it detects the presence of a threat to the body and it will not ask for “permission” to such response. It will trigger the release of several chemicals that will make the person prepared to handle the threat by making him more alert and ready for action to withstand any injury or harm.

These chemicals include adrenaline, CRH, and cortisol. We have all familiar with what an adrenaline rush is. This is a type of response brought about by the hormone adrenaline which the body releases to counter a threat. Its effects are short-lived which includes making one less-hungry as the blood flow is drawn away from the internal organs and into the large muscles to make them ready for “fight or flight”. Once its effects wear-off, cortisol or the “stress hormone” lingers and will signal the body to replenish the food supply used in the emergency.

Our ancestors were always under many threats, from wild animals to the onslaught of weather. Their bodies needed to store more fats and glucose, so they can have a constant energy supply they can draw from in times of threats. Human these days are no different although their threats are more “civilized”.

For instance, the tasks to finish an assignment or to meet a deadline at work can become a threat and can lead to a lot of stress. Hormones are released because of stress and energy will be spent. Food reserves are used, and cortisol will signal the body for replenishment. When this happens, the person will take food that can replenish supplies and often, they would reach out for those that are readily accessed, like a plate of cookies and junk foods. And this will result in weight gain.

It May Cause Anxiety

The release of adrenaline is not only triggered by emergencies. It can also happen during times of stress and can make one fidgety and activated. This could lead to burning off extra calories and as a result, a craving to eat more. Overeating, especially unhealthy foods, is a response to stress or to calm one down.

A survey showed that a lot of people deal with stress by eating and by watching television more than two hours a day. It’s inevitable for couch potatoes to give in to the temptation of overeating and is such state of inactivity, those extra calorie intakes are not getting burned. Anxiety can indeed make one devour food mindlessly without the presence of mind on how the food tastes, how much he has eaten or not even knowing he’s already full.

It Changes the Sleeping Patterns

All of us have experienced those sleepless nights, worrying about how we could pay bills or who could babysit our children or how bad a diagnosis can be. Studies have indicated that a lot of people lie awake at night because of such stresses and this has caused a surge in insomnia cases. Because of anxiety, the mind becomes overactive and cannot be turned off. When students cram for exams or write until the early morning hours, they will be deprived of sleep. Worse still, they become stressed and this will cause a decrease in blood sugar levels and ultimately, fatigue.

Drinking coffee or caffeinated soft drinks or alcohol to stay awake longer will disrupt the sleep cycle even more. The functioning of two natural chemicals that control our appetites, leptin, and ghrelin, are also disrupted because of sleep deprivation. The consequence is that people become grumpy and tired and will have an increased craving for food. The lack of sleep, as most people have experienced, can erode the ability to resist that extra bag of potato chips. An experiment was carried on obese dieters. They were asked to stick to a fixed calorie diet and were assigned either less or more hours of sleep at night. Those with less sleep substantially lost less weight.

It Affects the Metabolism

Some people may be wondering why despite eating the normal amount of calorie intake, they are still prone to gaining weight. If one is always under stress, he should expect this to be true since stress causes the body to release more cortisol hormones. The hormone will slow down the body’s metabolism and this will lead to weight gain. Too much cortisol will make dieting more challenging.

It Causes Food Cravings

When a person is under stress, will he be reaching out for a healthy salad or for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s?  Chances are he will go for the latter because stressed people are more inclined to crave for fatty, sugary, and salty foods. There’s a preference for unhealthy choices in foods if one is under stress and consequently, more inches around the waist.

It Alters the Levels of Blood Sugar

When stress is carried to extremes, the levels of blood sugar will ultimately suffer, and this can lead to mood swings, hyperglycemia, and fatigue. Excessive stress will disrupt the body’s metabolic processes which can lead to more serious health issues like strokes, diabetes, and heart attacks.

It Promotes Fat Storage


Under normal conditions, the body deposits fats on many areas in the body. But under high-stress levels, this distribution is affected, and fat is deposited in the abdominal areas. This isn’t only aesthetically unattractive but is also associated with more serious health risks. Somehow, there is a connection between stress and weight gain, in more ways than one.

Our early ancestors needed to store great amounts of fat reserves which they drew upon in staving-off weather elements and even wild animals. Our lives now may be different, but we are also exposed to many threats, but of different kinds. Constant exposure to stress brought about by work or personal issues can develop an extra layer of visceral fat around our bellies. Anatomically, the belly area has a rich supply of blood vessels and cortisol receptors, making it easier for fat storage. Unfortunately, those extra pounds of belly fat are unhealthy and worse, very difficult to get rid of.

Belly fat can release chemicals that can cause inflammation which can lead to increased risks of developing diabetes and heart diseases. And perhaps worse still, it would make it difficult for one to fit in those skinny jeans that he recently splurged on and that would certainly top the stress chart. We have discussed the role of cortisol and how it slows down metabolism and ultimately, its role in weight gain.

It Leads to Emotional Eating

The craving for unhealthy foods isn’t the only thing that cortisol can bring about. When one spends more

nervous energy than required, this will cause him to eat more than he normally would. Nightly visits and raids to the refrigerator for snacks or munching on unhealthy foods when stressed even one isn’t even hungry are signs of emotional eating.

It Makes Fast Food a Lot More Appealing

Fast foods are an easy way to prepare dinner for the family. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the major reasons for the increase of obesity not only on adults but on children as well. This is especially true for families where both parents are employed. Adding to the stresses at work is the stress of preparing healthy family meals after work.

There’s not enough time and the next option is fast foods. We can all agree that these alternatives have fatter and sugar contents. Even eating in fancy restaurants can be an issue as we have no control over what goes in the ordered food. Butter, for instance, is delicious but not really that healthy and is a favorite ingredient in restaurants to enhance food flavor.

It Makes One Feel “Too Busy” to Workout

The demands of work and family can interfere with workout schedules. Work can really suck-out the life in people and they become too lazy for exercise. On reaching home, they would rather relax, watch TV, and put-off exercise indefinitely.

Some tips to help avoid stress-related weight gain

Stress, by itself, is bad enough and excess stress should be worse and can lead to many issues like muscle tension, headaches, digestive problems, depression, and sleep deprivation. Recent research has also shown how stress can wreak havoc on the body’s metabolism.

Studies have already proven that there is a relation between stress and weight gain and this is due to the presence of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body. This hormone can increase appetite and the cravings for junk foods, which are the main culprit nowadays to accumulated belly fats. One may not be able to eliminate all the causes of stress, but he can make some adjustments to offset its effects. Consider the following pointers on how to beat weight gain brought on my stress:

Be smart when it comes to choosing fats. Stress can cause the body to break down less fat and store the rest in the body. Since storing is hard to avoid, one might as well include healthy fats in your meals. That way, not much damage can be done but include the fats in moderation.

A light and healthy salad with avocados or olive oil is good. Nuts instead of buttered popcorn. This doesn’t mean to totally avoid fats. Fats are essential for satiety and are one of the building blocks of the body. Balance the meals. If a person is having a salad with avocados, choose a vinegar dressing instead of a vinaigrette that’s oil-based, one high-fat item per meal is recommended.

Consume appropriate meal portions. Slash the number of calories but not the amount of food eaten especially in times of stress. For instance, when one regularly eats a cup of brown rice and a cup of veggies for a meal, change the combo by increasing the veggies and reducing the brown rice.

Or maybe instead of one cup of quinoa, make it half a cup of the cereal plus half a cup of spinach. It’s just trading your grains with even healthy foods. Furthermore, the trade will include foods high in water and fiber but with fewer calories.

Include some metabolic boosters. Foods have been discovered that can raise the metabolic rate. Their effects on metabolism aren’t really that great but they can still counter stress-induced metabolic slumps. Hot peppers are a favorite metabolic booster.

Group studies have been conducted and results indicated that those who consumed hot peppers burned significantly more calories with spiced-up meals. They didn’t feel as hungry and even felt fewer cravings for fatty, sweet, and salty foods. Next time around, try spicing up the foods with a bit more heat, as an extra bonus, spicy peppers are also immunity boosters and can lower cholesterol levels.

Before eating… breathe! Even breathing, the right way, of course, can be effective in controlling cortisol levels. Right before eating a meal, sit on a comfortable chair then spend a couple of minutes focusing on breathing. Do it deeply and slowly, in through the nose then out the mouth. Such exercises can help alleviate muscle tension and improve one’s mindset.

Take a short walk after eating. After each meal, try taking a leisurely, 15-minute walk. Studies have shown that this healthy habit can help normalize blood sugar levels after the meal. If one cannot do fifteen, go for ten or even just five. The walk can start the blood pumping, and this can shift the metabolism. The walk may also help one unwind and connect with the outside world.


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