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The Stress Sabotage
A Common Cause of Weight Gain

Katrina Christie, M.Ed., LCPC

Have you ever found yourself mindlessly eating a tub of ice cream while you ruminate about your latest relationship drama?

How about eating a cheeseburger and fries in front of your computer as you frantically try to meet a work deadline?

Perhaps you’re a busy mom or dad, eating chicken nuggets in your car as you shuttle the kids back and forth from activity to activity. 

If you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios, you’re not alone and it’s probably not your fault. Stress that goes on for a long period is a triple whammy for weight—it increases our appetites, makes us hold onto the fat, and interferes with our willpower to implement a healthy lifestyle.

Below are eight major reasons stress leads to weight gain (or trouble with weight loss) and four coping strategies you can use to take back control.

Hormones —When your brain detects a threat, no matter how large or small (an animal attack to a credit card bill), it triggers the release of adrenaline, CRH, and cortisol. Your brain and body prepare to handle the threat by making you feel alert, ready for action and able to withstand an injury.

In the short-term, adrenaline helps you feel less hungry as your blood flows away from the internal organs and to your large muscles to prepare for “fight or flight.” However, once the effects of adrenaline wear off, cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” hangs around and starts signaling the body to replenish your food supply.

Years ago, when our ancestors need to fight off wild animals, they used up a lot of energy, so their bodies needed more stores of fat and glucose.  In today’s world, we are no longer in these dire situations and are much more sedentary. 

As a result, we do not need to work off much energy at all dealing with our stressors! Unfortunately, we are stuck with a neuroendocrine system that didn’t get the update, so your brain is still going to tell you to reach for those comfort foods anyway.   

Cravings — OK, you're stressed. Do you reach for a healthy snack or a pint of ice cream? People experiencing chronic stress tend to crave more fatty, salty and sugary foods. This includes sweets, processed food and other things that aren’t as good for you. These foods are typically less healthy and lead to increased weight gain.

Emotional Eating — Increased levels of cortisol can not only make you crave unhealthy food, but excess worry can often cause you to eat more than you normally would. How many times have you found yourself scouring the kitchen for a snack, or absently munching on junk food when you’re not really hungry?

Fat Storage Higher levels of stress are linked to greater levels of abdominal fat. Unfortunately, abdominal fat is not only aesthetically undesirable, it’s linked with greater health risks than fat stored in other areas of the body.

Blood Sugar — Prolonged stress can alter your blood sugar levels, causing fatigue, mood swings, and conditions like hyperglycemia. Too much stress has even been linked to metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health concerns that can lead to greater health problems, like heart attacks and diabetes.

Fast Food — Experts believe that one of the big reasons we’re seeing more obesity in our society these days is that people are too busy (a stressor in itself) to make healthy dinners at home, often choosing to get “fast” food at the nearest drive-thru instead.

Too Busy to Exercise — Americans live a more sedentary lifestyle than we have in past generations, yet our minds seem to be racing from everything we have to do. Unfortunately, from sitting in traffic, clocking hours at our desks, and plopping in front of the TV in exhaustion at the end of the day, exercise often goes by the wayside.

Less Sleep—Do you ever lie awake at night worrying about paying the bills or about who will watch your kids when you have to go to work?  Our minds are overactive and won’t switch off.  Stress causes decreased blood sugar, which leads to fatigue. Lack of sleep may disrupt the functioning of ghrelin and leptin—chemicals that control appetite. We also crave carbs when we are tired or grumpy from lack of sleep. Finally, not getting our precious zzzz’s erodes our willpower and ability to resist temptation.

How to Minimize Weight Gain When You’re Stressed

Exercise—Aerobic exercise has a one-two punch. It can decrease cortisol and trigger release of chemicals that relieve pain and improve mood. It can also help speed your metabolism so you burn off the extra calories. 

Learn Mindful Eating—Mindful Eating focuses on “the now”,which helps you cope with stress, and change your consciousness around eating.  Mindful eating encourages you to slow down and tune in to your sensory experience of the food, including its sight, texture or smell. You also learn to tune into your subjective feelings of hunger or fullness, rather than eating just because it’s a mealtime or because there is food in front of you.

Find Rewarding Activities Unrelated to Food—Taking a walk, connecting with nature, reading a book, going to a yoga class, getting a massage, playing with your pets, or making time for friends and family can help to relieve stress without adding on the pounds. Although you may feel that you don’t have time for leisure activities with looming deadlines, taking time to relieve stress helps you to feel refreshed, lets you think more clearly, and improves your mood, so you are less likely to overeat.

Write in a Journal—Writing down your experiences and reactions or your most important goals keeps your hands busy and your mind occupied, so you’re less likely to snack on unhealthy foods. Writing can give you insight into why you’re feeling so stressed and highlight ways of thinking or expectations of yourself that may be increasing the pressure you feel. Writing down your healthy eating and exercise goals may make you more conscious of your desire to live a healthier lifestyle and intensify your commitment.