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Can Stress Be the Cause of Your Weight Gain?


February 12, 2020 | Published by

Do you ever feel yourself snacking more when under pressure? Is food your go-to relief when stress hits? It’s possible you may be practicing unhealthy eating habits due to your body’s natural fight-or-flight response.

Most of us become overeaters when we’re feeling a lot of pressure. This happens thanks to your body’s stress response. Once your body reaches a certain stress level, it does what it feels is necessary. In many cases, this means overeating.1

A University College London study analyzed health data from more than 2,500 men and women over age 54 regarding the connection between cortisol and body weight. In addition to higher cortisol levels being associated with individuals being overweight, the study also showed the additional pounds were being carried in the waist.1

“People who had higher BMIs had higher levels of cortisol, and people who had higher waist circumference, or carrying their weight in the middle, also had that higher level of cortisol,” says Dr. Heinberg, Director of Behavioral Services for the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at Cleveland Clinic.1

This fat deposition has been called “toxic fat” since abdominal fat is closely linked with the development of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and stroke.2

What are the Risks of Stress and Weight Gain

When stress remains untreated it can become chronic, which can lead to more serious long-term health consequences. High blood pressure, insomnia, heart disease, depression, and obesity are all linked to untreated chronic stress.

Some risks associated with weight gain include:

  • higher blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • heart disease
  • reproductive problems
  • an increase in joint pain
  • stroke
  • a decrease in lung and respiratory function

Stress-Related Causes of Weight Gain


The surge of adrenaline we experience from our fight-or-flight response causes us to feel “wired up” while we’re stressed. And while it’s possible to burn calories running around doing chores because we feel fidgety and can’t sit still, it’s also possible for anxiety to cause “emotional eating”. It’s very common to attempt to calm down by way of overeating or eating unhealthy foods.4

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association showed that 40% of individuals polled reported dealing with stress through eating, while 42% said they watched over 2 hours of television per day as a way of dealing with stress.

Not only does this sort of lethargy increase your chances to overeat, you also don’t burn off the additional calories your body is taking in. Mindless eating can cause you to not pay attention to how much you’ve eaten, the taste of the food, or even when you’re getting full. In the end, you feel less satisfied.


Whenever your brain observes a threat, whether it be a predator or expensive phone bill, it releases chemicals such as adrenaline, CRH, and cortisol. Your body and brain adapt to this threat by making you feel alert.4

When your body is in this threat mode, blood flows away from your internal organs and toward the large muscles needed to prepare for fight-or-flight. This process makes you feel less hungry. But once the effects of the adrenaline fade, the stress hormone known as cortisol lingers, signaling the body to restore your food supply.4

Our bodies needed store additional fat and glucose back when our ancestors had to use excess energy to fight off while animals, but today, we do not use nearly as much energy as we stress about traffic, bills, or our social lives. Unfortunately, our bodies never changed to suit our modern lifestyle, so our brain still tells us to reach for snacks during times of high stress.4

Cravings and Fast Food

When we are stressed out, we tend to crave foods that are easy to eat, highly processed, and high in fat, sugar, or salt. Stress affects us in such a way biologically and psychologically that can skew our brain’s reward system and may cause us to seek out more fat or sugar.4

The idea of cooking a healthy meal may seem like the addition of another stressor if we’re already over-stressed, so it’s often easier to just get fast food instead. In addition to these highly processed foods irritating your digestive system, they also rob you of the nutrients your body needs, causing you even more stress.5

Belly Fat

When we are chronically stressed we are more prone to getting additional visceral fat in our bellies. Our bellies have an abundance of blood vessels and cortisol receptors to make the process of dealing with stress easier. But unlike our ancestors, we’re not battling predators or famine, so this belly fat is difficult to lose. It can also be unhealthy, as the fat releases chemicals that trigger inflammation, which increases the chances that we will develop heart diseases or diabetes.4

Less Sleep

Stress causes a decrease in blood sugar, which leads to fatigue. This can lead to consuming coffee or other caffeinated drinks to help you stay awake, thus disrupting your sleep schedule. It’s also possible for a lack of sleep to affect our function of ghrelin and leptin, chemicals that are responsible for controlling appetite.4

 It’s possible to minimize weight gain while suffering from chronic stress by trying some of the following tips:


  1. Can Long-Term Stress Make You Gain Weight? Study Finds a Link. Cleveland Clinic.
  2. Stoppler, M. Does Stress Make You Fat? Medicinenet.
  3. Legg, T. Stress and Weight Gain: Understanding the Connection. Healthline.
  4. Greenberg, M. Why We Gain Weight When We’re Stressed—and How Not To. Psychology Today.
  5. How Gut Health Affects Immune Function.


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