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Smart strategies to beat stress-induced weight gain

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Jun 19, 2018

Stressed out?  If so, you’re not alone. A recent poll by the American Psychological Association found nearly 50% of people reporting greater stress compared to just five years ago.  It’s bad enough that stress is already associated with increasing headaches, body aches, GI disturbances, insomnia, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.  But one other health concern to add to this list of stress-inducers – weight gain.

When life is stressful, food for comfort may be your go-to. A recent survey found that 43% of Americans report using food to cope with stress, even when they are not hungry. Studies have also shown a relationship between stress and the desire to eat.  The more stressed you are, the greater likelihood of losing control while eating.  This hedonic hunger can cause increased food intake, particularly from non-nutritious, high calorie foods such as chips and soft drinks.  At the same time, chronic stress can decrease your desire for consuming more nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Stress and binge eating

Stressful events have been known to trigger binge eating.  Binge eating is when a person eats a large quantity of food in a short period of time and is typically defined as an eating disorder.  People who binge eat often experience a lack of control over eating (i.e., unable to stop eating or have control over what or how much one is eating).

Individuals who binge eats at least twice a week will likely see an increase in weight gain, especially if they are not regularly exercising.

How stress affects weight gain

The mechanism by which stress causes weight gain begins with the hormone secreted by your adrenal glands called cortisol.  Known as the stress hormone, cortisol regulates how you respond to stress.  When under stress, cortisol is released.  As cortisol levels rise, the pancreas secretes the hormone insulin making you feel hungry, especially for foods high in fat and/or sugar.

This hunger-inducing response to cortisol was shown in a study published in the journal Appetite.  Researchers found that female college students when under stress consumed more calories coming from sweets than women in non-stressful situations.  If the stress is psychosocial, this can lead to unrestrained behavior of wanting to eat more food than usual.

Stress also affects your sleep habits.  Experiencing stress often disrupts sleep, making your more tired.  Excessive sleepiness can increase levels of the hunger hormone known as ghrelin.  Ghrelin can also increase when you are stressed-out, thus making you seek out food for comfort.

Another potential stressor for many people is work-related stress.  Feeling the pressure of job demands can translate into not prioritizing self-care and instead using food or alcohol to try and manage work-related stress.  A study called Midlife in the United States ( MIDUS), found that the greater the job strain and the less control one has is associated with weight gain among men, while women had greater weight gain when feeling strain in relationships with others.

Smart strategies for reducing stress and weight gain

Since we can never completely run away from stress, we have to learn how to live better with it.  Using food to soothe ourselves when times get tough may offer temporary comfort but usually results in excessive weight gain.  Instead, use smart strategies that not only can relieve stress but also prevent you from gaining additional pounds harming your health:

  • Tame your stress – If stress contributes to your emotional eating, try a stress management technique, such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing
  • Have a hunger reality check – Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you just ate a few hours ago and don’t have a rumbling stomach, you’re probably not hungry.  Give the craving time to pass
  • Get support – Lean on family and friends or consider joining a support group as you’re more likely to give in to emotional eating without it
  • Take away temptation – Keep hard-to-resist comfort foods out of your home. When you feel angry or depressed, avoid going to the grocery story until your emotions are in check
  • Snack healthy – Snacks can be good for us but choose wisely. Make it a habit of having low-calorie snacks on hand such as cut up fruit and vegetables, unbuttered popcorn, or a handful of walnuts or almonds
  • Keep a food diary – Writing down what, how much, when you eat and your emotional status can be a powerful tool for discovering patterns that reveal the connection between mood and food
  • Learn from setbacks – If emotions are running high and you find yourself overeating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Learn from your experience and make a plan for how you can prevent it in the future.  Focus on positive changes you are making in your eating plan that ultimately will lead to better health
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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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