November 08, 2021 3 min read

By Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

Chronic stress can affect your health in many ways, including directly causing weight gain.

These days, many more of us are ultra-stressed. According to a 2021 clinical trial, at least 40% of the population reported gaining weight during the pandemic

While weight gain from stress is more common, stress can also cause weight loss. In the same clinical trial, 18% of the participants experienced unintentional weight loss, which is not the ideal way to lose weight.

To better manage stress and your weight, it helps to understand why weight is affected by stress and how it changes our habits.

The Link Between Stress and Weight Gain

The connection between stress and weight gain is due to several factors:

  • Increased cortisol levels: Cortisol is a hormone that rises under stressful situations. Under chronic stress, cortisol levels remain high, which can lead to weight gain, especially in the belly. High cortisol levels can cause intense cravings for calorie-laden foods. It also can slow down your metabolism if you don’t take steps to reduce it.
  • Emotional Eating: Stress can make you reach for food for comfort or to suppress emotions. We eat for many reasons, not always because we’re actually hungry. hen you eat due to emotional stress, the cravings tend to be for high-calorie foods. If you’ve ever eaten out of stress, you probably didn’t typically crave carrot sticks. On top of this, when you’re not actually hungry, it’s hard to know when you’re getting full. This leads to overeating and can cause your weight to creep up.
  • Decreased Exercise: Under times of stress, your exercise routine may get thrown off. Maybe you have less time or you just don’t have the motivation. If this continues, that scale number will likely start to shift upward.
  • Poor Sleep: If you are having trouble calming your mind, this can make it harder to sleep well. A lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can cause more food cravings and make it more difficult to muster the energy to exercise.

The Link Between Stress and Weight Loss

While it’s more common to see stress associated with weight gain, some people are more likely to lose weight when stressed.

Stress can lead to decreased appetite, missed meals or increased exercise as a way to relieve the stress. You may lose the desire to eat or feel like it takes too much energy to cook.

If you are actually trying to lose weight, you may be wondering why this is a problem. However, this is not a healthy way to lose weight, as you will likely be missing out on important nutrients. 

Additionally, when people lose weight from stress, they tend to lose it quickly.

Quick weight loss often leads to eventual weight regain, which can be incredibly frustrating.

How to Break the Stress-Weight Cycle

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, healthy habits often get pushed to the back burner,  which actually exacerbates the problem.

Here are a few simple ways to break the stress-weight cycle:

  • Make exercise a priority. Exercise is one of the most effective strategies to reduce stress. Regular exercise produces endorphins, increases energy, improves sleep quality and clears your mind. If lack of time is a barrier, higher intensity workouts will give you the biggest bang for your buck. 
  • Plan your meals. Meal planning has been associated with better diet quality and a healthier weight. If you’re out of your meal-prep routine, this can lead to spontaneous meal decisions where it’s not as easy to make good food choices. 
  • Keep it simple. Pick one day a week to plan ahead of time, and rotate the same 2-3 meals that you know work for you.
  • Keep a journal. Journaling helps to get your emotions out on paper. It doesn’t have to take more than five minutes, and can be hugely effective for relieving stress. You can do this as part of your nighttime routine, to reflect on your day and clear your mind before bed.
  • Learn healthier coping mechanisms. We all have our own go-to coping mechanisms when times get tough. If your current methods for coping are through food or alcohol, this can create an unhealthy dependence on these habits to make you feel better. Instead, make a list of a few healthier ways to cope with stress. For example, journaling, meditating or going for a 10-minute walk.

With these methods, you can relieve stress more effectively without feeling guilt from overindulging. 

If stress is affecting your quality of life, there are solutions. Practicing healthy lifestyle habits will help to reduce stress, energize you and support a healthy weight. 

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