Stress & Weight Gain
Is there a link between stress and weight gain?
You may have heard that anxiety, depression and stress can cause weight gain – and while this can be true, an exact mechanism of the cause hasn’t been identified yet.
Being stressed does not directly cause you to gain weight, as gaining weight requires you to be in a calorie surplus (meaning eating more calories than you need).
However, being stressed can cause you to engage in behaviour that lead to weight gain; such as stress snacking, overeating and being less active than you usually are.
In addition to this, stress can increase the stress hormone cortisol, causing water retention and making you heavier on the scales, leading you to think you’ve gained weight (even if you haven’t!).
Cortisol is critical for survival as it regulates our daily functions including waking up, alertness, memory formulation and regulation of metabolism and blood sugar.
Acute stress can rapidly increase cortisol as we activate our ‘fight or flight’ mode: which is really handy when we have to act fast in response to an emergency, but not when you’re stressed all the time due to work, social and home pressures. This low level of constant mental stress that’s always present, even if it’s not physiologically required, is called chronic stress.
How stress can affect your diet
Stress can affect your appetite—many people report that they tend to gain weight when they are stressed, whereas others report loss of appetite. These different reactions may reflect the type of stressor, its duration or severity, genetic predisposition and learned coping style.
Stress also affects dietary preference, making us more likely to reach for foods which are high in fats and sugar when experiencing stress or negative emotion. Eating “comfort food” can activate brain’s reward systems and dampen the stress response. Overall, chronic social stress, access to highly palatable, energy-dense foods and little need for physical activity set the stage for the development of overweight and obesity
Another factor is pre-existing weight: Men and women who are overweight or at the upper limits of the “normal” weight range are more likely to gain weight in response to stress than those who are not.
What can you do about it?
My recommendation is to first and foremost improve your mental health and coping mechanisms.
Take time out to practice mindfulness through meditation, yoga or deep breathing. This can help bring cortisol back down to normal levels. Studies show that brief mindfulness meditation training fosters greater active coping efforts, resulting in reduced psychological stress during social stressors and a reduction in cortisol. There are plenty of free meditation apps that you can download to your phone to get you started.
In addition to this, I recommend creating a structured nutrition plan for yourself to try to ensure you’re eating regular healthy meals. If you’re organised and have a plan that aligns with your health goals, you’ll be less likely to reach for food that doesn’t help you in the long run. If you need some ideas for meal planning, there are meal plans and shopping lists here.
Try to have a backup plan when you’re feeling stressed to actively manage it, instead of reaching for food to numb the feeling. Write yourself a list of alternative things you can do that’ll make you feel better: Think about things like taking a walk, calling a friend, or distracting yourself with something productive until the cravings pass.
Managing stress is easier said than done, and this is not an exhaustive list, so please reach out to your GP to get a psychologist referral if you feel it would be helpful.
If you have gained weight from chronic stress, don’t feel disheartened. There are steps you can take to get you feeling healthier and more like yourself.
- Start off with goal setting so that you can frame exactly how much weight you’d like to lose and in what time frame.
- Consider changing your diet to be lower calorie for weight loss, with a focus on healthy, protein-rich foods, vegetables, wholegrains and fruit.
- Start an exercise program doing exercise that you enjoy so that you’re more likely to stick to it, and don’t be afraid to recruit a workout buddy!
- Curr Obes Rep. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 Mar 1
- Published in final edited form as:
Curr Obes Rep. 2012 Mar; 1(1): 16–25.
Effects of Chronic Social Stress on Obesity
- Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress
-J Med Assoc Thai
-2013 Jan; 96 Suppl 1:S90-5.
-Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students