Does Stress Eating Really Cause Weight Gain (or is it something else)?

Posted in: Diet & Nutrition
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Susan Ohtake, Certified Personal Trainer

Susan Ohtake, CPT

Stress is everywhere. Work-related woes, kid worries, family squabbles...

...sometimes there's little we can do to avoid it.

And stress doesn't just impact us emotionally. It can also change our waistlines.

Now I know you might have a tendency to eat when you are feeling stressed or upset...but is it eating that's actually responsible for the weight gain we associate with stress?

It is easy, after an upsetting day at work, to kick off your shoes when you get home from work and head straight to the kitchen. In a stressed state, you will probably not reach for the fruit or vegetables in the fridge. Instead, you will open the freezer and succumb to the lure of a pint (or even gallon) of ice cream.

This is not the only time when stress eating may get the best of you. Oftentimes, if we find ourselves in an emotional telephone conversation with a friend or intimate partner, we will grab a bag of chips or pretzels or nuts to keep us company. While we hold the phone with one hand, we often eat with the other .

And, by the end of the conversation, we may have consumed hundreds of calories. Many of which are the worst foods for us.

Another culprit of stress eating may be our hectic schedules.

If you have kids like me, you might be on the run from 6 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night. There are often no breaks in this schedule to sit down and eat a healthy, well-balanced breakfast or lunch. Instead, we may grab fast food on the go or snacks from the nearest vending machine.

These food choices pack very little nutritional punch, yet, they are often high in calories. Not surprisingly, these poor food choices may lead to weight gain.

What Does Science Say about Stress Eating?

The risks posed by stress eating are not simply in our mind. Recent research shows that stress, and stress eating, can affect a person's weight. More stress leads to a larger number on your bathroom scale. And, perhaps even more alarmingly, research suggests that traumatic events, such as a divorce or a death in the family can dramatically raise the risk that you may become obese.

But, this does not mean that you should simply throw in the towel and think that you will never be healthy or at your ideal weight!

Because a lot of the time, it's NOT actually the eating that's responsible for stress-related weight gain.

Let me explain...

The Hidden Cause of Stress-Related Weight Gain

During periods of stress, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol, in particular, can lead to weight gain. Cortisol stimulates your body's need for high calorie food and it also tells the body to store any unused calories.

This is a natural biological response that's built into our bodies in order to protect us.

Many years ago, it was helpful. Stressful times might require our bodies to prepare by storing more fat (to fuel our bodies later). Today, this hormone response isn't required.

(Quick Note: Interestingly, this isn't the ONLY somewhat backward way your body thinks it's "protecting you." More info in the video below)

What Can You Do About Cortisol?

Here are some keys to lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol:

  • Reduce Stress - Of course, this one is obvious. Lower stress levels lead to lower cortisol levels

  • Try Relaxation Techniques - If you know me, you know I'm not a huge fan of yoga for getting fit. It simply takes too long to see results. But it CAN be a great relaxation technique that lowers stress levels.

  • Get More Sleep - Shoot for 7-8 hours per night (but not too much).

  • Laugh More - Laughing and having fun naturally lower stress levels.

  • Exercise (but be careful) - I suggest short, intensity-focused workouts that get you fit and lean fast. Longer (often cardio-focused workouts) elevate cortisol levels for a longer period of time. If your goal is to avoid the weight gain associated with cortisol and stress, long, boring workouts might not be the answer.

Even though biology and millennia of human history are hard to fight, there are things that you can do. Activity will reduce stress and it will also help you break the stress eating cycle...but be careful! Too much activity can actually backfire.

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