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How Stress Causes Weight Gain

How Stress Causes Weight Gain
Dr. Constance Odom, MD Picture of Dr. Constance Odom, MD

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Written by our editorial team.

Last Edited 5 min read

It is amazing how the body works. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have led to the humans that we are today. For the most part that's a good thing. But when it comes to stress and how our bodies react to it, the benefits end. Stress is one of our worst enemies when it comes to weight gain and it has a significant negative impact on our bodies in several ways, especially chronic stress. To put it simply, stress causes weight gain, and the reasons why are described below.

The Science

In ancient times when humans were fighting off enemies for survival, adrenaline was the perfect response. It charges you, makes you feel wired and ready for anything. It tenses up your muscles and frees your inhibitions so that you can better face whatever it is you are trying to fight or run away from. Once the adrenaline is gone, cortisol would come to take its place. This helped the body recover from its efforts by taking in more food and storing it for future use.

The link between stress and weight gain lies in this ancient cycle. We have come a long way, and no longer have fight or flight situations on a daily basis. But we do encounter stress in many forms. You might be a busy mom, an overworked executive, or just struggling through life. Whatever the source of your stress may be, it activates the same cycle.

Thus, when you are stressed your body produces adrenaline. You don't want to eat, you get jittery, and you push through to get things done. But when the immediate stress is over, the cortisol kicks in. Cortisol is often called the stress hormone. When stress reaches its height and the adrenaline wears off, this hormone makes you want to eat a horse. Worse, it takes everything you eat and stores it as fat.

The Psychology

This is just the science behind why stress causes weight gain. There are many other factors. As a society we have come to think of food as comfort. We all have "€œcomfort foods"€ that we head for as soon as we get stressed out. These foods are usually linked to feelings of comfort and happiness as a child. One person's comfort food might be ice cream. Another person's comfort food might be tacos. It just depends on the person and their individual memories and experiences.

Undoubtedly, comfort foods are almost always the most lacking in nutrition. They are usually high in calories, fat and sugar. They are usually highly processed foods that offer little in the way of nutritional value and a lot in the way of taste. But, when cortisol makes us eat and we eat these unhealthy comfort foods, the problem is compounded. Not only is our body already storing all of the fat we are consuming, but we are adding extra fat to the equation.

According to the American Psychological Association, about 40 percent of those surveyed respond to stress and anxiety by eating unhealthy foods or overeating in general. It is no wonder then, with today's high stress on the go mentality, that obesity is becoming an American epidemic. It is simply that common to eat when you are stressed.

The Solution

There are a lot of things you can do to help alleviate stress other than eat. Developing good coping skills and habits will help you avoid food and put you in a better position to avoid weight gain. Deep breathing, exercise, and meditation are all on the list. You might do some crafts, read a book, go for a walk, or engage in a hobby. Whatever you find relaxing should be sufficient. All you have to do is stay away from the food.

Don't keep comfort foods on hand. It is much harder to reach for a tub of ice cream or a bag of potato chips in a fit of stress if you have to get in the car and go get it from the grocery store. By the time you get dressed and find your keys, you will have had time to think better of it and find a different way to relieve your stress.

If you spend a lot of time in the car, on the road, or in the office, keep some healthy snacks around. Only carry what you must in the form of money or cash. The hardest part about always being on the go is that there is a fast food restaurant on nearly every corner. You have to avoid those places like the plague. It can be difficult, but eating some peanut butter crackers on the go is a whole lot better than eating a Big Mac.

For the most part, it is about making a conscious effort to avoid emotional or stressful eating. You have to be committed to the effort. You have to tell yourself daily that you will not give in. You have to give yourself other options, ways to eliminate your stress or alleviate it in some way that doesn't require you to eat unhealthy foods.

In fact, if you can avoid eating for a few hours after the adrenaline has stopped you are much better off. By that time the cortisol will not be in full swing, and your body will store less of what you are eating. But you still need to make sure you are eating healthy foods, not comfort foods.

You can also find alternatives to your favorite comfort foods. Instead of reaching for ice cream, reach for a low fat yogurt. When you want potato chips and French onion dip, skip the chips and reach for the carrots instead. When you want something salty and crunchy, go for some popcorn with a bit of salt. There are a lot of foods that will satisfy sweet and salty cravings without going over your calorie count or sending you on an eating binge.

When you find ways to cope with your stress, and recognize the effect of stress on weight gain, you can easily overcome this obstacle. You do not have to be a slave to your stress. Take the reins, and you will stop the weight gain.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your physician about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Nu Image Medical may not offer the medications or services mentioned in this article.