How can stress affect my weight and eating habits?

Marjorie Nolan Cohn
Nutrition & Dietetics

There are several ways stress can affects weight and eating. 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. Another way stress affects eating has to do with sleeping patterns. 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.

Stress can affect your weight and eating habits by increasing the levels of stress hormones (specifically cortisol) circulating in your body. These hormones can cause you to have higher intensity cravings for high fat, calorie-dense foods, which will typically make you gain weight over time. It's part of the body's response to stress, which dates back to the caveman era, where the body responded by wanting to stockpile energy for later.
Stress can cause what has been termed toxic weight gain. Cortisol, a hormone released when you're under stress, is an appetite trigger. That's why so many women eat more -- and less-than-healthy food -- when under a lot of stress. Those extra calories are converted to fat deposits that gravitate to the waistline. These fat deposits, called visceral fat, are associated with life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer. Chronically high levels of cortisol may stimulate the fat cells inside the abdomen to fill with more fat. As you age, this expanding waistline can be life threatening.

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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.