How does stress affect weight gain?

Kirsi Bhasin
Nutrition & Dietetics
Stress can definitely have an effect on your waistline. Two of the main ways stress adds on the pounds is through inflammation of the body and increased appetite. Both can lead to unwanted, extra pounds and a series of illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural defense system to heal and protect itself. It is a standard reaction but when chronic stress hits, inflammation can go beyond what is normal.

In fact researchers from Ohio State University, the University of California, Los Angeles, Northwestern University and the University of British Columbia found that chronic stress affects gene activity of immune cells. They found that immune cells are already ready to fight infection or trauma before they enter the bloodstream and even when there is no infection or trauma to fight. This causes even more inflammation.
High levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, can fuel your appetite and increase your cravings leading to weight gain. It’s that craving we have for chocolate or potato chips when we are feeling stressed, overwhelmed or upset and reaching out for food for relief.
Your cortisol levels may go up because your boss yelled at you, you’re upset with your partner, or work feels overwhelming. Picking up that bag of chips or eating something yummy just feels easier than dealing with the real problem. It brings comfort and relief. Sound like you?
The good news is you can beat stress eating. It’s all about tuning into yourself and experiencing your emotions head-on, rather than covering them up with food. Try the below steps throughout your day to conquer stress eating.

What to do when the urge to eat (junk) strikes:
  1. Ask yourself if you are truly hungry. If not, tune into the feeling that you’re feeling. For example you may be feeling stressed. Where do you feel it? In your chest? In your stomach? 
  2. Be specific about the feeling -- the more specific the better. It helps you deal with your underlying emotion. Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you feel hurt or sad by what someone said or did not do? Do you feel undervalued versus just feeling stressed?
  3. Experience the feeling. Let the feeling wash over you. Let it come instead of sweeping it under the carpet. Feelings are natural and normal. It’s ok to feel what you feel. Remember it’s important to deal with it. You may need to take a break for a few minutes or more. Give yourself time and space to recover. Be easy on yourself.
  4. Do something that makes you feel good instead of reaching out for food. Read a great book, watching your favorite movie or talking to your best friend on the phone.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Stress is a major driver of weight gain. Learn more on this topic in this video of Dr. Oz.

Jennifer Ashton, MD
OBGYN (Obstetrics & Gynecology)

Obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Jennifer Ashton explains how stress affects weight gain. Watch Dr. Jennifer Ashton's video for tips and information on women's health.

Research shows a connection between stress and overweight. It seems that higher levels of cortisol, the so-called "stress hormone," increase our tendency to store excess fat -- especially fat around our waist.
Marjorie Nolan Cohn
Nutrition & Dietetics

Yes, stress can cause weight gain. There are several ways that stress can contribute to weight gain. First, stress causes many people to stress eat. Stress eating is a type of emotional eating, which contributes to excess calories and when done often enough causes weight gain. In addition, the type so food people crave when stressed are generally high fat/sugary foods. Second, stress causes the body to produce more of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that promotes body fat, especially around the stomach. Third, when someone is stressed they generally sleep less. Less sleep, chronic fatigue causes the hormone ghrelin to rise. Ghrelin is the primary hunger hormone, and causes someone to feel hungry even when they don’t need to eat.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.