What We Know: How Stress Can Impact Your Weight

By Josh Hall
Gesina Kunkel

If there’s one type of food synonymous with death, it’s the casserole. And that’s not a knock on the casserole itself or its flavor profile—most casseroles are actually quite delicious—but because the “love in a dish” comfort produced for grieving families has made it the thing to bring when someone dies. The aptly named “funeral potatoes” casserole features hash browns, potato chips, butter, milk, sour cream, three different types of cheeses—and several hundred calories per serving.

Just about all of us would be happy to dive into a heaping helping of cheesy potatoes regardless of the setting, but science tells us that stressful experiences (like the passing of a loved one) are more likely to cause us to eat unhealthy foods. But just how does stress impact weight gain? And can stress cause weight loss? Instead of digging into the bottom of a casserole dish, we went digging for answers to those questions and more.

Fight or flight and the role of cortisol

Most of us have heard of the term “fight or flight,” but few people realize its actual origin. Also known as the acute stress response, fight or flight is a physiological reaction that takes place whenever we’re facing a daunting situation. With our ancestors, that could have meant dealing with ferocious beasts encroaching on their homes and deciding whether to fight the animal or flee from it. More modern fight or flight responses can involve either imminent physical danger or emotional peril like deciding to try something new or grieving a death.

Cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone,” tends to rise during these trying times. In turn, the release of that hormone causes a spike in insulin levels and a reduction in blood sugar, which leaves us yearning for foods rich in sugar and fat. And as we all know, continued binging on fatty, sugary foods leads to weight gain. Or, as one nutritional biochemist put it, “More stress = more cortisol = higher appetite for junk food = more belly fat.” Some even refer to this type of belly fat as “toxic fat” due to its correlation to heart attacks and strokes.

How stress impacts our metabolism

In a 2015 study, researchers at Ohio State University questioned women about the types of stressors they encountered the day before. Following that session, each study participant received a high-fat, high-calorie meal, with researchers closely measuring metabolic rate and levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, insulin, and cortisol.

What they found was that the women who reported at least one stressor taking place within the past 24 hours burned fewer calories than the women who were not stressed. When extrapolated over the course of a calendar year, researchers said the difference in caloric burn could add almost 11 pounds per year in the women. The participants who were stressed were also said to have higher levels of insulin—a strong contributor to the storage of fat—and had less fat oxidation, a key player in the conversion of large fat molecules into smaller molecules our bodies use as fuel. Why is that important? Because when you don’t burn fat, you store fat.

Oddly enough, stress can also lead to increased inflammation because of its influence on your vagus nerve and the way you absorb food. Even if your mind feels up to exercising, your body may not if you’re dealing with painful inflammation.

Can stress cause weight loss?

If real-life stress was as it’s portrayed in the movies, we all would be sobbing sweatpants-clad sad sacks eating ice cream out of the container. But the reality is that each of us handles stress differently; and while the typical food-based response to stress is to overeat, some people actually do the opposite.

During fight or flight, your body slows down its digestive functions so that it can concentrate on what it deems a threat. As part of that, we sometimes encounter stomach pain, heartburn, diarrhea, or even constipation—all of which can cause a person to eat less and lose weight.

Mindful eating is crucial during peak periods of stress

Stress can consume our every waking thought, so while we’re ping-ponging thoughts of despair and anxiety around our brains, we aren’t recognizing the quantity or quality of the food we’re consuming.

The other thing that can contribute to weight fluctuations during periods of stress or anxiety is that we tend to resort to vegging out in front of the television as a means of coping. According to an American Psychological Association survey, 42% of respondents said they watched TV for more than two hours a day to handle stress. That means we aren’t active enough to burn off any extra calories we’re consuming, or, alternatively, we aren’t inclined to leave the house to dine with friends.

Mindful eating programs that help the eater tune in to the sensory experience of the food they’re eating have been proven to lead to fewer food binges and reduced depression. Studies have shown that keeping a food journal and self-monitoring caloric intake is an effective way for someone to manage their weight.

Healthy ways to cope when you’re stressed

Whether you eat too much or too little when stressed, there can be serious short- and long-term ramifications to your overall health. The best course of action is to create a regimented diet and exercise routine and commit to it, even when you feel stressed or anxious.

If you find that you’re forgetting to eat, create a reminder on your phone to ping you when it’s time to eat. Try to avoid overly fatty or sugary foods, opting instead for oranges and carrots that contain immune-boosting antioxidants, leafy vegetables to regulate your nerves, whole grains with serotonin-boosting complex carbs, and fish with stress-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. You should also avoid fad diets, which can be restrictive, demoralizing, and add an unnecessary layer of stress.

Exercising can decrease cortisol and release mood-improving chemicals, in addition to speeding up your metabolism for the times that you do indulge in something sweet. Other stress-busting strategies like reading, yoga, meditation, or journaling can also help improve your outlook and normalize your weight since they provide alternatives to emotional eating.

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