Stress: Is it Causing Weight Gain?

Stress management can be an important part of overall health and well being, but it also plays an important part in weight management.  A study published in the American journal Epidemiology followed over 10,000 individuals for a 19-year period.  Researches found that there is “a direct relationship between work stress and risk of general obesity (body mass index greater than 30) and central obesity (waist circumference greater than 40 inches in men and 35 inches in women) and this was largely independent of other factors.” 1

Stress can often lead to weight gain because it can change eating patterns.  In fact, 2 out of 3 people say that they eat more when they are stressed.  For some, they reach for high-fat or high-sugar “comfort foods” to calm them down.  For those following an overly restrictive diet, it is almost inevitable to reach for food in response to a stressful situation.  This is because it takes a lot of concentration to stay on a very low calorie diet since your body has natural mechanisms to prevent it from starving it’s self.   According to research done on mice, stress may also release hormones that act as an appetite stimulant, especially for carbohydrate-rich foods.1,2

Not only can stress lead to eating at inappropriate times, but it also may change the way we store fat.  The Journal of Natural Medicine published a study that was done on mice, and researchers found that over a two-week period chronic stress did not have much of an effect on weight.  They also found that during this same time period a high-fat, high-sugar diet did not have much of an effect on weight.  However, when chronic stress and a high-fat, high-sugar diets were paired together during the same time period there was a notable increase in abdominal fat.  Over a three-month period on a high-fat, high-sugar diet, mice under stress gained 3 times more weight than there non-stressed counterparts.1

Hormonal changes with stress may be to blame for increased fat storage in the abdominal region, particularly Neuropeptide Y and Cortisol.  While a short-term rise in these hormones probably will not have a major effect on weight, it is likely that they could contribute to weight gain over time. 3

Given this information, it might be tempting to take some of the herbal products that claim to reduce levels of these hormones.  For example, there are products that claim to reduce cortisol levels to promote “rapid weight loss”.  However, this is not the answer because there is no evidence from reputable studies to support these claims.  In fact, there has been legal action taken against marketers of two herbal supplements who have agreed to stop making such claims, but the products remain on the market. 3

So, what can you do to prevent stress related weight gain?   

The first step to avoiding stress related weight gain is to learn how to minimize stress.  This can be done by avoiding stressful situations when possible (i.e. avoiding the person who causes stress, leaving early for work to avoid rush hour, avoiding stores at crowded times).  Unfortunately, we are not able to avoid all stressful situations.  Therefore, we must learn how to alter some stressful situations and learn how to deal with stress more appropriately.  Here are some tips:

  • Alter Stressful Situations:
    • Get a better perspective on the situation. Ask yourself, “Will the situation you are dealing with make a difference in a year from now or even a week from now?” Let’s face it; some of the things that cause stress in our lives really aren’t that important when you look at the big picture.
    • Be realistic when planning your schedule. There is only so much time in a day, so don’t overbook your self. Allot an appropriate amount of time for each task.
    • Break overwhelming tasks down into smaller, more manageable tasks.
    • Delegate tasks when possible.
    • Create a calming environment. Minimize clutter by throwing out junk and unnecessary items. Turn off the television or other background noises that are raising stress levels. Instead, put on some soothing music and light a candle to create a more calming environment.
  • Learn how to deal with stress appropriately
    • Exercise. Weather it’s going for a walk or doing yoga, exercise is one of the best stress relievers.
    • Meditate or try a relaxation tape.
    • Call a friend or a family member to talk.
    • Try deep breathing exercises.
    • Write in a journal
    • Join a support group.

Most importantly, recognize that eating has never solved any emotional issue…instead, it only makes it worse.  Food is not the answer, so try other stress management techniques to find out what works best for you. 


1.) Dean Ornish. Lighten Up.

2.) Harrison Wein. Stress: Obesity Link Found.

3.) American Institute for Cancer Research. Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?