Why Does Stress Make You Fat?


If you’ve been gaining unwanted weight and can’t pinpoint why, the answer could be as simple as being stressed. Dealing with acute stress, episodic acute stress, physical stress, and chronic stress have all been linked to weight gain, especially in the abdominal area, and what might look like a small gain per week really adds up throughout the year. Reducing your stress is key to staving off those unwanted pounds, and we’ll explain why stress makes you gain weight.

Cortisol and “Fight or Flight”
When you experience something particularly stressful, frightening, or dangerous, your body reacts physiologically with what is known as the “fight or flight” response. During fight or flight, your body system reacts physiologically in the heart, lungs, skin, eyes, circulation system, but also the liver. The liver’s response is an increased conversion of glycogen to glucose resulting from glucagon, a hormone that tells liver and muscle cells how to act. The stored glycogen is converted back into glucose, which is then released into the blood.
Along with glucagon, your body also releases epinephrine, norepinephrine, and the “stress hormone” known as cortisol. After the acute stress has ended, norepinephrine and epinephrine levels return to normal, but cortisol levels remain high. Under chronic stress, your cortisol levels can be continuously high until your overall stress level has decreased consistently.

The ultimate goal of cortisol secretion is supplying energy for the body. Cortisol stimulates carb and fat metabolism for quick energy, along with stimulating insulin release maintenance of blood sugar levels. Ultimately, this causes an increase in appetite. You’ve heard it time and time again, eat less to lose weight. While it does come down to calories in vs calories out, recognizing this state of increased appetite due to stress is often overlooked, which is why it becomes so easy to eat “unknowingly” or not properly tracking the food you eat in times of extreme stress. If you experience chronic stress, this overeating can turn into a habit.

Cortisol also slows down your metabolism, which makes it even more difficult to lose weight. A study in 2015 gave women a high-fat, high-calorie meal, measuring the women’s metabolic rates, blood sugar, cholesterol, insulin, and cortisol levels both before and after the meal. Research found that women who reported 1 or more stressors during a 24-hour period burned over 100 fewer calories than the non-stressed women. The stressed women also had higher insulin levels (which contributes to fat storage). In an average woman who experiences stress, this metabolic difference could add up to an 11-pound gain in just one year, compared to a different woman who ate the same thing.

With an elevated cortisol level during stressful periods, your body will feel an increase in appetite, which can quickly turn overeating into a habit. Often, the first thing you reach for when you’re stressed is a sugary food. This is because sugar provides your body with the quick energy it thinks it needs during stress. Additionally, increased levels of cortisol also help cause higher insulin levels, your blood sugar will drop, and in come the cravings for sugary, fatty foods.

So, while you are experiencing what your body thinks is a dire need for sugar and fatty food, you will be more likely to reach for a comfort food like cookies or pizza instead of something more sustainable like a lean protein or vegetable. This can easily become a harmful habit because eating “comfort foods” often is a temporary stress reliever and can bring a sense of solace temporarily, adding more fuel to the “habit of overeating” fire.

When you consume excess sugar during these high-stress periods, your body tends to store that sugar, or energy, in the form of abdominal fat. Abdominal fat as we all know is particularly hard to shed. And thus begins a harmful cycle: get stressed, release cortisol, gain weight, crave junk food, eat junk food, gain weight, get more stressed from gaining weight.

Unhealthy Habits
Stress can cause you to engage in other unhealthy behaviors, unrelated to the hormonal changes, which can also cause weight gain:

Emotional eating and binging: The increase in cortisol levels makes you crave sugary, fatty food, but additionally experiencing these things and indulging in the food you crave, only reinforces the habit, and can cause you to routinely eat more than you normally would. These extra comfort foods offer temporary relief, which over time with “positive reinforcement” (giving in to what your body thinks it needs and rewarding it) can lead to a process of emotional eating or even binges, both of which are hard habits to break and make managing weight even more difficult.

Eating fast food: Chances are, you didn’t plan to be stressed, which also means you probably didn’t plan for what you were going to eat when your body has a craving. This can lead to you opting for more “accessible” foods, or fast food, often which are not the healthiest options. You may also be more likely to drive to get fast food or order takeout, as opposed to taking the time and mental preparedness to cook a more balanced meal.

Less exercise: If your stress is chronic or if you’ve had a particularly recent stressful event, exercise can seem like a chore. Combine that with all your other daily demands, exercise may end up last on your to-do list. Stress from having too much to do in too little time can leave even less opportunities for exercise.

Skipping balanced meals: When you have a lot of demands on your to-do list, taking the time to plan and prepare a healthy meal can quickly take a backseat. You may find yourself skipping breakfast or working through your lunch, only to find at the end of the night you need a larger-than-necessary meal.

Less sleep: Often when you’re stressed, you may find it harder to sleep at night or stay asleep. Sleep deprivation has been linked to a slower metabolism and being overtired can weaken your willpower to stick to a healthy, balanced diet.

Long Term Effects of Stress and Weight Gain
When your stress is not managed or has peaked, you may face more serious or long-term health consequences aside from weight gain.

Chronic high stress can result in health-related complications such as:
• Digestive issues
• Sleep deprivation
• High blood pressure
• Heart disease
• Anxiety
• Depression
• Cognitive impairment
• Diabetes
• Stroke
• And other chronic conditions

Gaining weight carries additional risks such as:
• Diabetes
• Higher blood pressure
• Stroke
• Heart disease
• Decrease in respiratory and lung function
• Joint pain
• Reproductive problems

Breaking the Cycle
Stress affects everyone at some point. Some people may experience it as a one-off, but for people living with chronic or frequent stress, it can be easy to lose track of your routine or schedule due to the stress. Healthy behaviors like a balanced diet and regular exercise can combat weight changes resulting from stress. To help break this cycle and better maintain a routine, consider these strategies:

Prioritize exercise: Exercise is key to help ward off stress-related weight problems. Exercise alone is critical to stress reduction, but exercise also helps one manage their weight. Incorporate regular exercise into your schedule, and that does not have to mean a 2-hour heavy lifting session. A small change such as walking during your lunch, or a 30-minute trip to the gym will make a big difference. And if you can handle more, go for it! You will feel the endorphins rushing after a workout, which in turn will help reduce your stress levels.

Prepare healthier options for your comfort foods: There are a ton of diet and macro “hacks” that can greatly alter the calories of your comfort foods. Have a recipe modification for your favorite foods on hand, even if it is something as simple as opting for a protein waffle instead of a stack of buttermilk pancakes. Or choosing air-popped and lightly salted popcorn over the caloric dense “movie theatre butter” option. Keeping your pantry stocked with healthier options will make it easier and more likely for you to choose them.

Log your food in a food journal (yes, all of it): People who are more honest with themselves and know the details of the food they eat are more likely to have success in managing and losing weight as opposed to people who eat and don’t have a journal. This doesn’t mean you have to carry around a diary, there’s tons of food and macro tracking apps.

Drink water when hungry: It is very easy to mistake thirst for hunger, which can lead you to eat more than necessary. Identify true hunger easier by eliminating any possible mild dehydration. If you’ve recently eaten, drink some water first and wait 15 minutes. If you’re still hungry, it’s a sign that your body likely needs actual food this time.

Practice mindful eating: Eating without distractions and truly focusing on what you’re eating can help you better avoid emotional eating and lower your stress levels, which in turn leads to better weight management. At the next time you eat, try putting your phone away, step away from the computer, or turn off the tv. Eliminating these distractions will also make you enjoy your meal more and may encourage you to try new recipes.

If you are having trouble managing stress-related weight gain, it may be time to see your doctor. Your doctor can rule out any other health issues that may be causing the weight gain, and help you come up with a plan to manage your weight and reduce stress.
Your doctor may also recommend you work with a registered dietician to help formulate a balanced nutrition plan, or a psychologist to help you develop strategies to help mitigate and manage stress.
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