Stress and weight gain

Ongoing stress causes chemical changes that basically turn our bodies into efficient fat storage machines. Words by Allie McLaughlin. 

We all experience some form of stress each day and, in small amounts, it can actually be good for us. Stress allows us to react to situations when we need to think quickly and our bodies are wired to handle short bursts of stress followed by a return to balance. However, long-term and ongoing stress can have a negative impact on our bodies causing anxiety, changes in eating patterns, strong food cravings, digestive problems, and weight gain.

Stress can be caused by both external and internal factors. External stressors might include a busy work environment and pressure from the boss to meet deadlines or sales targets, getting stuck in traffic when you’re already late, screaming children, the phone ringing, etc. Internal stressors might be anxiety about a large family get-together or nagging thoughts of self-doubt or low self-worth.

What happens in your body when you’re stressed?
You watched a horror movie last night, it really scared you and triggered the release of adrenaline and cortisol through your body. These chemicals were still in your system this morning when you were out walking so the honking of a car horn had you jump out of your skin. Although the car horn was harmless, your mind perceived this noise as a threat and told your brain to prepare your body to react to the situation. Commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight response’, which is designed to help you deal with danger, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol to help you respond to these perceived threats. The heart, muscles, lungs and brain become the priority for recieving fuel and all the other bodily functions are put on the back burner.

Our bodies are intelligent and automatically respond to such situations. Adrenaline makes the heart beat faster so it can supply more oxygen to the cells in the body. It also increases blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and the rate of breathing. The adrenal glands pump out stress hormones like cortisol, which increases the amount of sugar in your bloodstream by blunting the effect of insulin. Insulin helps to maintain a normal blood sugar level in the body. Although there is an increased amount of sugar in the blood (from both increased cortisol and suppressed insulin levels), the sugar is not getting delivered properly to our cells. It’s like having a key that unlocks a door, but without someone to use the key, it’s useless. Since the body is smart, it recognises the cells are crying out for energy (glucose) and sends hunger signals to the brain. This state of having high blood sugar levels for a prolonged period can lead to strong food cravings, overeating, and weight gain. If our satiety signals are not in tune, we end up eating more and we store as fat any glucose that is not immediately used by the body.

High levels of cortisol can also compromise one’s immune system and therefore reduce the effectiveness of the digestive system, causing indigestion. This is a concern, because even if we are consuming healthy foods, we may not be digesting them properly and absorbing their nutrients.


Proper nutrition on a regular basis can help to combat your stress levels. However, the first thing you should do (before turning to food), is find out what is causing your stress. Long-term stress leaves cortisol levels high and then the vicious cycle of having strong food cravings and fat storage starts again. Is stress comes in short, sharp bursts and the body has the chance to return to a normal state, it’s fine. The problems appear from long-term, ongoing stress. The hormonal storm caused by prolonged stress can increase your risk of fatigue, adrenal exhaustion, weight gain, blood sugar problems and high blood pressure.

Once you have managed your stress, you can use food as a support system.



Eat regularly

Listen to your hunger cues. Don’t let your body get to the point where you feel you could eat two large pizzas. Eating on a regular basis keeps your blood sugar levels more stable, which in turn may prevent strong food cravings and overeating.

Eat balanced meals

Different types of food offer different nutrients. Include at least three food groups at each meal and make sure one of them is protein, as it is satiating and can help you to feel more alert.

Eat your fats

Learn to love fat, it is your friend and ironically the body cannot release excess body fat without certain fats. Walnuts, flaxseed, and fish oils all contain omega 3 fatty acids. These fats may help to improve brain function and decrease feelings of depression or anxiety that sometimes come from prolonged stress.

Drink more water

This is probably the most important thing you can do to combat stress. Drink water, every day, all day. Stress can cause the body to be dehydrated because when we are scared our metabolisms increase and we naturally sweat. What’s worse, being dehydrated can cause stress itself, headaches, feelings of dizziness, and fatigue. So buy an attractive water bottle and carry it with you everywhere.

Avoid sugar

Reaching for the quick sugar fix, such as chocolate or baked goods, is one of the worse things you can do when you are stressed. The high amounts of sugar in these sweet snacks combined to the high blood sugar levels from being stressed make the problem even worse and your food cravings even stronger. Not to mention, having prolonged blood sugar levels is also a risk factor for developing Type 2 Diabetes.

Don’t use food as a cure for your stress
It doesn’t work; I have tried it many times. The strong food cravings the body experiences are most likely due to the imbalance of hormones from the stress response. Instead, try having a cup of warm tea, going for a walk, or take five deep, long breaths in a calming or private place. If you really want to eat something and feel it will help, I recommend consuming foods that are crunchy. Almonds, carrots, seeds, or celery are almost the equivalent to the relief you get when punching a boxing bag! Give it a try, but if it doesn’t work, don’t stress about it.

ALLIE MCLAUGHLIN is Managing Partner of She is a Registered Dietitian, chocoholic, and yoga teacher with 200-Hour Yoga Alliance National Teacher Certification. 


Stress and weight gain


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