Stress is often known as the silent killer.  Humans today live in a constant state of some sort of stress it seems.  Our bodies are wired to help with this process, to escape danger and avoid harm, which our ancestors used a lot more than we do.  Today, we’re stressed out by work, kids, schedules, social media…the list goes on and on…but rarely stressed out by something that can kill us.  Our bodies still respond chemically the same way to the negative stressors.  So how does this process contribute to weight gain?

Researchers have long known that rises in the stress hormone cortisol can lead to weight gain. Every time you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, and as a result, glucose (your primary source of energy) is released into your bloodstream. All of this is done to give you the energy you need to escape from a dangerous situation – also known as the fight or flight response.  Once the threat has passed, your adrenaline high wears off and your blood sugar spike drops. This is when cortisol kicks into high gear to replenish your energy supply quickly.

We often reach for sugary foods during this process because our bodies are telling us we need quick energy.  The downside to consuming so much sugar is that your body tends to store sugar, especially after stressful situations. This energy is stored mainly in the form of abdominal fat, which can be particularly hard to shed. And so the vicious cycle starts: get stressed, release cortisol, gain weight, crave more sugar, eat more sugar, gain more weight.

Even if you resist the craving for sugar,  cortisol in and of itself  slows down your metabolism, making it difficult to lose weight.

In 2015, researchers from Ohio State University interviewed women about the stress they had experienced the previous day before feeding them a high-fat, high-calorie meal. After finishing the meal, scientists measured the women’s metabolic rates (the rate at which they burned calories and fat) and examined their blood sugar, cholesterol, insulin, and cortisol levels.

Researchers found that the women who had reported stressors during the previous 24 hour period, burned around 100 fewer calories the next day after their meals.

Aside from the adrenal system wreaking havoc on your weight loss goals, stress can cause unhealthy eating habits.  These include: 

Emotional eating – some people are conditioned to eat when they are nervous, anxious or sad.   Like any other habit in these situations, food brings these individuals temporary relief from the issue they’re struggling with.  

Eating quick food options – fast food.  When we are stressed and not spending enough time planning what we will eat that day, we often end up stopping for a quick bite which is usually fast food.   Over time, these choices will cause weight gain due to the high fat and sugar content.   We’ve all been stuck in a pinch like this, but grabbing fast food has to be sparse or at the very least, in moderation.

Exercising less – we’re all busy, but if you don’t make exercising a priority, it won’t happen.   Our schedules with work and kids will always get in the way.  Carving out time to exercise has to be intentional and not fall last on your list.  Your life may depend on it!  A 30 minute walk at lunch is better than nothing.

Skipping meals – not eating is just as bad as over-eating!  When you don’t eat, you begin a vicious cycle of slowing your metabolism and reaching for fast food.  Then you’re right back where you began!  Most of the clients I see don’t eat enough.   Helping them with keeping healthy calories up usually helps with thier weight loss goals.  Who knew eating more was the key to weighing less!

So how can we break the cycle of stress and weight gain?

Make exercise a priority – as stated above, everyone needs to actually schedule it in or most days it gets swallowed up by life.

Eat healthier comfort foods –  You don’t need carbs or fats to make you feel better. One of the few studies testing the effectiveness of comfort foods in improving mood found that eating relatively healthier comfort foods, such as air-popped popcorn, is just as likely to boost a negative mood as “unhealthy” foods.   Making sure your pantry is stocked with these types of foods will make it easier to grab a healthier option during times of high stress.

Keep a food journal – I have all of my clients keep a food diary for me, along with reflections on what was going on that day and how they felt when eating that particular meal.    Humans are animals, but eating has evolved into so much more than just survival for us.  People eat socially, emotionally, for pleasure…it’s multifaceted, so one needs to approach it that way.  Being aware of when, why and what you eat is important for habit change.

Eating slower by eating at a slower pace without distractions, people can become aware of when they are beginning to feel full.   If you are slamming food into your mouth, chances are you were full awhile ago, but too busy eating quickly to notice.

Drink more water It’s easy to confuse thirst for hunger. But confusing these two cravings can lead you to eat more calories than your body needs, prompting weight gain. It’s much easier to identify hunger after you’ve eliminated any mild dehydration. If it’s only been a couple of hours since you’ve eaten and you feel hungry, try drinking some water first. If you still feel hungry, then grab a snack.

Practice stress-relieving practices– taking up yoga, meditation or simply reading a book are great ways to take a break and let the body come down from the high we often keep it at all day.


Stress not only affects our heart health by causing conditions such as hypertension and cholesterol issues, there are other things going on behind the scenes.  It’s obviously naïve to say to someone, “Just lower your stress”, but hopefully with being aware of the damage it causes internally will help prompt people to try one or two of these tips to help decrease it a bit – and the weight will probably come off along with feeling better and more relaxed!