Why do I gain weight when I'm stressed?

Marjorie Nolan Cohn
Nutrition & Dietetics

There are a lot of reasons why stress causes 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 is generally high fat and sugar. Second, stress causes the body to produce more of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that promotes body fat and makes it harder to lose weight, especially around the stomach. Third, when someone is stressed they generally sleep less. 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.

It is very simple.  You eat more.  Stress causes some people to not eat and of course those people lose tremendous amounts of weight under stress.  Other people use food to comfort them when going through personal stress and they of course tend to gain weight.  You can get into a big discussion on hormonal implications of stress but the reality is no one puts on weight without the extra calories.  

The moral of the story is do what you have to do to get through that phase of your life and then use a good fitness program to fix any damage done.  For the record though, people that embrace a fitness program while undergoing tremendous amounts of stress tend to deal handle the stress far better than those that don't.

Neal Spruce
Neal Spruce on behalf of dotFIT

Not everybody does; in fact it’s quite common to lose weight when highly stressed. Stress affects everyone differently and that includes how it may impact your eating habits and appetite. Added stress often leads to a cascade of unfavorable conditions like impatience, emotional fragility, bickering, and as you mention, weight gain. But weight gain is more due to food choices triggered more by mood swings, emotional desire for comfort foods, rather than normal body-appetite functions.

That said, from the physiological side, the primary stress hormone is cortisol which is secreted in excess during high levels of physical or psychological stress. Cortisol is important to the maintenance of blood sugar levels, blood pressure and will “over-stimulate” fat and carbohydrate metabolism for quick energy needs brought on by stress. And this is probably the main reason high levels of cortisol triggered by stress can increase and alter appetite, leading weight gain. Additionally, continuous disruption of normal cortisol secretions can also affect where fat is stored on the body. Some evidence points to people, with stress related high levels of cortisol, preferentially storing fat in the abdominal region as opposed to the hip areas when their calorie intake exceeds their daily calorie burn. Abdominal fat is more closely associated with cardiovascular disease than fat stored in the lower body.

If you are looking for help here the best thing you can do for both weight gain and stress is exercise. Exercise delivers “the triple benefit”: obviously it helps burn added calories you’re probably consuming, but the two less obvious rewards are exercise’s ability to naturally de-stress and help keep you guilt-free – just because you did it. I am not sure there is a better way to keep stress at bay than exercising. Additionally, exercise has been proven to be a better strategy for treating depression than any drug on the market. The hormonal changes, including the release of endorphins that take place during and following exercise, naturally soothe the entire body. And if you’re not exercising, this may be the best time to start.

Dr. Kathleen Hall
Preventive Medicine

Stress causes the body to conserve fat and expend fewer calories. Stress causes us to be fat.  It changes our metabolism and as we release more of the stress hormone cortisol.  We actually hold onto the fat and store the fat because our body thinks we are storing up for some disaster.

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
When our ancestors faced periods of famine, they stored fat in their bellies with an organ called the omentum. We do the same thing: When we face chronic stress, we eat more food than we need, and we store it in our omentum for quick access to energy. The steroids released by the HPA axis are also sucked up by the omentum and help grow it as big as the muscles on a weight lifter. That process proves to be damaging because the toxins from our omentum fat are pumped directly into surrounding organs. But it also offers a tangible way to gauge our stress levels: The bigger our bellies, the bigger our burden.
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International bestselling authors of YOU: The Owner's Manual and YOU: On a Diet give you all the tools and know-how to stay young and defy the ageing process. Drawing lively parallels between your...

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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.