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Stress and Weight: What Gives?

Nina Ghamrawi, MS, RD, CDE
August 13, 2023
August 17, 2023

Do you eat when you are stressed? Do you skip meals or lose your appetite? Well, while both are common responses to stress, a loss of appetite is more common when the increased stress level is new or temporary, but an increased appetite happens when your stress is high for extended periods. But why?

Chemistry is a funny thing. When you're under stress, your body releases more of a stress hormone called cortisol. Most of us become overeaters when we're feeling a lot of pressure. This happens thanks to your fight-or-flight response, a.k.a. survival mode -- once your body reaches a certain stress level, it does what it feels it needs to. In most cases, that means overeat.

Why? Because your body thinks you’ve used calories to deal with your stress, even though you haven’t, says Pamela Peeke, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. As a result, it thinks you need to replenish those calories, even though you don’t.

Because of the high cortisol levels, you may find it harder to eat healthy. Also, during times of particularly high stress, you may eat in an attempt to fulfill emotional needs — sometimes called stress eating or emotional eating. And you may be especially likely to eat high-calorie foods, even when you're not hungry.

To prevent weight gain during stress and reduce the risk of obesity, get a handle on your stress.

When you feel less stressed and more in control of your life, you may find it easier to stick to healthy eating and exercise habits.
  • Recognize warning signs that you are stressed: tense shoulders, headaches, being easily frustrated are some quick signs.
  • Unplug: separate yourself from the things that are triggering you for just a moment, either physically or mentally.
  • Refocus: Take a few deep breaths, focus on relaxing your shoulders, sitting straight, and thinking about how to resolve the issue,
  • Live well: Lack of sleep, caffeine, low activity, or a poor diet can all make you more prone to feeling stressed.

Stress, alone, can raise stress hormones, offset your body’s natural balance, and make controlling your weight and other health conditions more difficult. Protect your body from the effects of stressors by sleeping and eating well.  If you try stress management techniques on your own but they don't seem to be working, consider seeking professional help through psychotherapy or counseling.