8 Ways Stress Can Make You Fat


Ask people what makes individuals fat, and you will probably get answers like “eating too much,” “not getting enough exercise,” and “slow metabolism.” Although all of these factors certainly play a role in being overweight, there’s one common thread in each of these reasons: stress.

If you can get a strong handle on the stress in your life, there’s a good chance you can lose the weight you have been, well, stressing over for weeks, months, perhaps years. Once you understand how stress can take control of your weight and your life if you don’t reel in the reins, you can be well on the road to dropping those excess pounds.

The “secret” of weight gain and stress is a hormone called cortisol. Although the body responds to acute stress with a rise in adrenaline and cortisol, the benefits of adrenaline (less appetite, preparation of your muscles to “fight or flight”) go away. That leaves high levels of cortisol if you continue to remain in a stressed state—work worries, family demands, money woes, pressing social obligations, car problems, etc. When cortisol levels stay elevated, your health suffers, and one way it suffers is weight gain.

So here are 8 ways stress makes you fat.

1. Slows your metabolism.

Elevated cortisol levels can cause your metabolism to slow down. Therefore, you could gain weight if you eat the same amount of food you always ate, or have no luck losing weight if you cut calories.

2. Increases your cravings.

You’ve had another extremely stressful day at work and traffic was horrible. What’s the first thing you reach for when you get home? Broccoli or a candy bar? Chronic stress tends to cause people to crave sweet, salty, and/or fatty foods. These food cravings may also feed into another way stress can make you fat (see the next point).

3. Triggers emotional eating.

In addition to high cortisol causing you to crave junk food, your emotions are also high, which can lead you to emotional eating. You probably recognize the scenario: mindlessly eating a bag of chips or cookies while sitting in front of your computer or TV until you suddenly realize the bag is empty.

Read about 8 ways to calm down and decrease stress levels

4. Disrupts your blood sugar levels.

When chronic stress sets in, it can disrupt your blood glucose (sugar) levels, resulting in fatigue, hyperglycemia, and mood swings. Prolonged stress is also a risk factor for metabolic syndrome, a collection of health issues associated with type 2 diabetes and heart attack.

5. Causes fat storage.

Chronic stress is associated with the development of visceral fat—that layer of extra fat deep in the belly. What makes this excess fat storage so easy (and so difficult to lose) is the presence of cortisol receptors. Since excess belly fat is a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes, managing stress becomes even more critical

6. Leads to poor eating habits.

Too busy to cook? Why not stop by the drive-through fast food joint on the way home? Unfortunately, that’s what many families are doing instead of opting for healthful meals at home.

Read more about junk food addiction

7. Makes you too busy to exercise.

Is your to-do list longer than the day? Are you overextended? Unfortunately, the stress of daily obligations can make you too busy to exercise—or so you may think. The result is a racing mind, a lot of tasks that don’t involve healthful exercise, and weight gain.

8. Causes poor sleep.

Stress and worry can cause you to lose sleep. While you are lying awake at night, your body’s sleep cycle is disrupted. Along with the fatigue you will feel the next day, you may also experience a disruption in the function of chemicals that control appetite (ghrelin and leptin). Lack of sleep also is associated with food cravings. A recent review of sleep deprivation reported that “studies have established an association between decreased self-reported sleep duration and an increased incidence of type 2 diabetes (T2D), obesity, and cardiovascular disease.”

What can you do to relieve stress and thus fight off fat and weight gain?

  • Resist the temptation to eat poorly. That includes overeating, eating fast food, and giving into food cravings. Instead, have a ready list of things you can do that don’t involve eating, such as taking a walk, calling a friend, writing in your journal, practicing meditation or yoga, or reading a book. Fight overeating by practicing mindful eating.

  • Make time for exercise. You may need to be creative, but it can be done, especially if you involve family and friends in your efforts. They can use the exercise too! Walk during breaks and lunch. Make it a habit to walk or bike with someone several times a week. Does your community have a pool or exercise room? Use them! Regular exercise also helps keep blood sugar levels in balance and allows you to sleep better.

  • Practice mindfulness. Pull the plug on your racing mind and body for at least 10 or 15 minutes per day and practice mindfulness meditation and deep breathing. Take time to be conscious of the here and now. Optimal is two such sessions per day: one first thing in the morning to prepare you for the day, another before going to bed to release the stress of the day and help you sleep. Of course, you can always include more stress-reducing sessions throughout the day!

Read more about how to find peace when the world around you is nuts

Now that you know the 8 ways stress can make you fat, you can take steps to beat it.

Image via Benjamin Vander Steen

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By Deborah Mitchell| July 06, 2015
Categories:  Care

About the Author

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at deborahmitchellbooks.com.



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