How Stress Can Lead to Weight Gain, and How to Fight It

Why You Crave Comfort Food When You’re Stressed

Chronic stress has an almost diabolical effect on the metabolism. “Chronic stress may influence our brain’s reward system in areas such as the amygdala and hippocampus, which may promote food cravings,” says Chao.

The secretion of cortisol in response to a stressor also tells your body to store belly fat, says Shawn Talbott, PhD, an exercise physiologist and nutritional biochemist in Salt Lake City, and author of The Cortisol Connection. One review found that belly fat not only adds pounds but increases your risk for heart attack.

In addition, another study revealed a connection between belly fat and ischemic stroke in women. At the same time, hormones released in response to chronic stress can prompt the loss of skeletal muscle, according to other research. “Muscle tissue is the largest calorie burner in the body, so overall metabolism drops,” Dr. Talbott says.

Research has repeatedly found that social support can help decrease stress levels and thus lower the likelihood of weight gain. In one study, researchers found that while most first-year college students gained weight, students with lower levels of social support at the beginning of college had greater increases in body mass index (BMI).

BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight and can be an indicator of disease risk associated with a higher amount of body fat, per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Male students in the previously mentioned study with stronger social support were less likely to “stress eat” and gain weight. Stressful eating encompasses consuming extra calories to compensate for increased appetite during stressful experiences, as well as the likelihood to eat more high-calorie foods during high-stress times. More research is needed to see if this same connection is observed in women as well, although this study did not identify one.

You don’t need those carbs and fats to make you feel better. Another study found that eating relatively healthier comfort foods, such as air-popped popcorn or almonds, was just as likely to boost a negative mood as more caloric comfort food, such as ice cream, or a food that subjects considered “neutral,” such as a granola bar, in terms of how much they liked the food and how much comfort they thought it provided.

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The Importance of Sleep and Exercise for Stress Management

In several experimental studies, short-term sleep deprivation led to increased calorie intake and weight gain.

This may be because of changes in the appetite-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin, and a greater intake of high-calorie foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. Most adults should aim to get seven hours or more of sleep each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Exercise helps lower stress levels and may help decrease symptoms of anxiety, according to a systematic review.

But the benefits of moving regularly don’t end there. “Exercise can have direct effects on weight by helping burn calories and increasing lean muscle mass, which helps with weight control,” says Chao. “Regular exercise can help improve your physiological toughness when facing stress. Exercise can lead to beneficial adaptations in the stress response system that improve how your body reacts to future physiological stressors, which may result in the body being more efficient at coping with psychological stressors.”

Exercising regularly can also help you more rapidly recover from stressors and decrease negative feelings following a stressor. “This lessens the overall wear and tear that the stressors have on the body,” says Chao.

Plus, regular physical activity can stimulate the production of endorphins. These are brain chemicals that can elevate mood and produce feelings of relaxation, explains Chao.

As for how hormones, sleep deprivation, stress, and eating habits are linked, the connections are many. “Stress and sleep can interact in a cyclical manner,” says Chao. “High stress has negative effects on sleep quality and duration, and poor sleep can negatively affect stress levels. Sleep deprivation is often thought of as a chronic stressor that can contribute to stress dysregulation and hyperactivation of the stress systems, including higher levels of cortisol.”

“Cortisol is one of the main hormones involved in stress responses and prepares you for fight or flight,” says Chao. “It can increase your appetite and trigger cravings for high-calorie comfort foods. Stress hormones can also impact your metabolism and promote fat storage, particularly around the abdomen.” Higher cortisol levels resulting from insufficient sleep can furthermore influence areas in the brain that may further enhance the impact of stress, says Chao.

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Science-Backed Tips for Preventing Stress-Fueled Weight Gain

“Too many people tend to view stress as something that they just have to deal with,” says Talbott. “But they really need to think about managing stress as something that is as important as their diet or their exercise program.”

Here are some tips for breaking the chronic stress-weight gain feedback loop:

Set priorities. “Make a record of how you spend your time each day for a week,” suggests Chao. “Decide which tasks and activities are most important to you and prioritize them.” Don’t forget to incorporate time for adequate sleep and exercise into your schedule. “Sleep and joyful physical movement are important parts of self-care,” says Alexis Conason, PsyD, a private-practice psychologist in New York City who counsels her patients on body image and acceptance, as well as mindful eating.

Sleep lays the foundation for mental well-being — when you feel well rested, you’re more likely to have more resilience and be better able to handle the changes that are bound to come up in your life. “In contrast, when you don’t get enough sleep, every little obstacle that comes up in your day-to-day life feels more difficult to cope with,” says Dr. Conason.

Become efficient. “Streamline healthy eating and physical activity to make them easier to fit into a busy lifestyle,” says Chao. Chop vegetables for the week to eat as snacks or to throw into stir-fries or salads, and prepack several days of lunch over the weekend. Keep a set of exercise clothes and shoes at the office so working out after you wrap up at your desk becomes a no-brainer.

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Love your body. “Poor body image, internalized weight bias, and body shame are major sources of stress,” says Conason. “Research suggests that internalized weight bias increases stress, as well as contributes to other poor medical and mental health outcomes.”

Improve your body image by focusing on being healthy. When eating, for example, fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, take walks several times a week, and begin other healthful habits, rather than putting all your mental energy into the number on the scale.

“Mindfulness meditation is a great tool to decrease stress and improve our capacity for self-acceptance and self-compassion, which have been shown to reduce body image dissatisfaction, body shame, and associated stress,” says Conason. Mindfulness meditation is the act of being fully aware and present in the current moment, with a sense of nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance, explains Conason.

Recognize what you can appreciate in your life. At the same time that you acknowledge whatever is stressing you out, recognize what you can appreciate in life.  “As simplistic as it sounds, the fact that you can look to what is improving in a given situation can help to psychologically buffer the stress in other areas of your life,” says Talbott.

RELATED: How Stress Affects Your Body, From Your Brain to Your Digestive System

Think before you snack. Stop before you eat other than at mealtimes, and consider whether you are actually hungry or if you’re reaching for food for another reason. “Food is not the best match for the emotional need of stress,” says Conason. “It may alleviate stress for a moment, but the stress will almost always return. It’s important to find a way to more authentically meet our emotional needs.”

Conason recommends focusing on noticing when you’re eating in response to stress, versus when you’re eating in response to physiological hunger. “From there, you can think about how to best care for your needs, whether that is with food or another coping mechanism, such as a stress-reduction or relaxation technique,” she says. Do some yoga or deep breathing, call a friend, read a book, or even take a nap. Don’t be afraid to seek professional support if you need it.

Take a walk. Instead of taking out your stress on a bag of chips, take it outside or walk around the house. It can do wonders for helping to calm you down.


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