6 Ways Stress Can Cause Weight Gain—and How You Can Avoid It
Most of us deal with some sort of stress in life. Whether it's financial burdens, a challenging job, or relationship woes, stress can bring on so many added emotions to your day. But aside from feeling anxious or overwhelmed, did you realize that stress can also be the culprit of packing on extra pounds? You heard that right. We spoke with experts who share ways stress can cause weight gain—and what you can do about it.
Eat This, Not That! spoke with Laura Burak MS, RD, founder of GetNaked® Nutrition and author of Slim Down with Smoothies, who explains, "One of, if not the most impactful pillars of your health that will affect your weight the most without even realizing it is your stress level. It is so important to keep in mind that food or exercise alone are not the only factors that matter with weight management." Burak adds, "You have to look at your life as a whole and address every area because they are all interrelated. I see clients who are 'doing everything right' when it comes to eating, but they haven't addressed their stress so their weight loss journey will be impacted."
Now, let's address some of the common ways stress can cause unwanted weight gain, along with what you can do about it. Read on to learn more, and when you're finished, be sure to check out People Swear by the 30/30/30 Plan for Weight Loss: 'Completely Changed My Body'.
Here's how stress can cause weight gain.
1. Compromised sleep patterns
A good night's rest is important for a multitude of health reasons. Burak tells us, "Stress and sleep quality can typically go hand in hand. When you're stressed or anxious, you may have trouble sleeping, which I believe is [an] important factor in weight loss and why overweight and obesity is so prevalent in this country."
When you're not getting consistent quality sleep, your "hunger hormones" get out of whack, Burak explains. This can negatively impact your metabolism and food choices.
2. Emotional eating
When you're feeling stressed, how many times do you typically head to the kitchen and start to pick on anything that happens to be in front of you? Hey—that's why they call it comfort food. Stress can lead to emotional eating, which can cause unwanted weight gain.
"Stress can contribute to weight gain through various mechanisms," says Lisa Young, Ph.D., RDN, the author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, a nutritionist in private practice, and a member of our Medical Expert Board. "One of the primary factors is emotional eating, as individuals often turn to high-energy dense foods like pizza, pasta, and chicken fingers to cope with stress, leading to weight gain."
3. Heightened cortisol levels
Whenever you're stressed, your cortisol (stress hormone) levels rise. And you guessed it—that affects your metabolism in a negative way. "Research has demonstrated that cortisol can slow down metabolism, making weight management more challenging," Young explains. "Additionally, cortisol can promote fat accumulation, further contributing to weight gain." Heightened cortisol levels can also result in a lack of solid sleep, high blood pressure, and increased blood sugar.
4. Decreased insulin effectiveness
Insulin is a major player when it comes to aiding the glucose in your body to enter your liver, fat, and muscle cells, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This helps them utilize it as a source of energy.
Did you know that being chronically stressed can decrease insulin effectiveness? According to Young, "[This can result] in increased body weight, as insulin struggles to regulate fat storage in adipose tissues."
5. Lack of exercise
When something is weighing heavily on your mind, or you simply have too much on your plate, it's easy to cut out time to nurture your well-being. That includes gym time. Whether you take time for a quick walk or run, or even stretch it out with some yoga poses, some exercise is better than nothing, and research shows that physical activity can result in weight loss.
6. Not planning healthy meals
A stressful week can lead to not making the healthiest meal choices. When you're already strapped for time, it's easy to decide on fast food, snacking, and generally not taking time to prepare healthy dishes at home. Research links fast food and ultra-processed items to weight gain.
Here's how you can effectively address stress-related weight gain:
1. Think about the area of your life that's causing you stress, and make necessary adjustments.
Burak points out, "One positive adjustment impacts all other areas of your health little by little, so your stress levels begin to improve. For example, figure out ways to add more movement to your life."
Make sure you carve out plenty of "you" time. It's really important to not miss your exercise routine—even if you have to shorten it a bit. "Increasing your steps and getting outside more will change your mood and help you feel mentally and physically stronger, which then translates into wanting to put healthier and more nutritious foods into your body, enhancing quality sleep and naturally destressing your entire body," Burak says.
2. Keep a food and mood journal.
A good number of eating habits are the result of boredom, procrastination, and emotions. It's really important to be mindful of what causes your bad habits. Burak suggests, "Think about keeping a food journal to track your food and mood. My clients who connect the dots between mood and food choices make the most impact on their habits and weight."
3. Find natural stress relievers that help.
Another tip from Burak? Start experimenting with natural stress relievers. This could be focusing your efforts on a quality diet that incorporates more fruits and veggies, taking a warm bubble bath, trying some guided meditation, boosting the amount of movement you get in a day, and establishing calming bedtime rituals, like enjoying a soothing cup of tea.