Work deadlines. Family relationship drama. Health issues. The pinch of inflation at the grocery store. Stress can come from many different sources, and each person experiences and reacts to it in different ways. Stress may also have visible consequences – one of which is weight gain.
Stress and weight gain
A 2022 poll conducted for the American Psychological Association showed that more than 30% of adult respondent reported recently experiencing feelings of overwhelming stress. Among the negative impacts of their stress was what they were snacking on. More than a third of respondents reported that their eating habits had been affected by their stress level. Let’s look at how stress can cause weight gain.
Stress can increase the body’s cortisol levels, a stress hormone that favors fat accumulation in the midsection and stimulates appetite. People with elevated cortisol levels tend to crave foods associated with weight gain, particularly foods high in sugar and fat.
Beyond biological cravings, being chronically stressed can mean having less time and motivation to prepare healthy meals. Being short on time and motivation can also impact our desire to make room physical activity. While exercise can be a stress reliever, stressed people tend to exercise less, further tipping the energy balance equation.
Some stress-coping behaviors may also lead to weight gain. In a stressful state, many tend to snack on sugary and fatty foods as a coping mechanism. While comfort foods can trigger the brain’s reward pathways to provide temporary stress relief, the excessive consumption of low-nutrition, high-calorie foods can cause weight gain.
While some resort to stress-eating, others gravitate towards drinking more alcohol. Drinking alcohol can contribute to weight gain through increased calories, lack of self-control around food, and increased hunger hormones.
The role of sleep
It’s no secret that lack of quality sleep increases the risk of health problems. Sleep is linked to stress and weight gain in a couple of different ways. If someone is not getting good-quality sleep, this can raise cortisol levels during the day, contributing to cravings and weight gain. Lack of sleep can cause daytime fatigue, further leading to extra snacking.
How to mitigate stress
While a person may not be able to erase stress entirely, there are actions that can be taken to ease someone’s stress level. Examples include:
- Aiming to get quality sleep by setting boundaries and refreshing sleep hygiene routines
- Creating a work-life balance
- Deep breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques
- Eating a healthy diet with fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and Omega-3 fatty acids can lower inflammation thus lowering cortisol levels
- Eating mindfully
- Finding a support system of people who keep you calm, and seeking professional help when needed
- Getting regular exercise helps lower a person’s cortisol level
- Identify the root causes of stress and create systems, strategies and boundaries
- Practicing gratitude daily
- Scheduling time for enjoyable activities
Managing stress in a healthy way doesn’t have to be an effort undertaken alone. Individuals should start by determining the main sources of stress in their lives and consider if there is a need for change. For example, if a relationship with a friend is stressful, there may be boundaries the individual needs to set in that relationship to lessen the emotional burden that’s causing the feelings of stress.
While some causes of stress – like a family member’s illness, for example – can’t necessarily be avoided, it is possible to reduce the areas of stress in other parts of life to reduce the overall load a person is carrying. Individuals should talk to those around them – their doctor, their colleagues and managers at work, and their family and friends – about the responsibilities they carry and explain their need to create or hold boundaries.
Shanthi Appelö is a registered dietitian and health and wellness spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan based in Detroit. Passionate about the science of nutrition and behavior, Shanthi has experience working in clinical nutrition, public health and teaching in the university setting. In her free time, she enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, exploring the outdoors, working on art and spending time with family. For more recipes and health information, visit ahealthiermichigan.org.
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