Stress And Weight Gain: Is There A Connection?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated July 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you noticed body changes during times of unusual stress? Daily frustrations, emotional upsets and unusual demands can build up, possibly leaving you feeling completely overwhelmed and with fluctuating weight showing up in random gains or losses. 

When that stressed-out feeling continues over time, it can cause many physical effects beyond weight fluctuation. If you're gaining weight and don't know why, it can be helpful to speak with a doctor to diagnose and address the root cause. The answer could be related to the physical and emotional effects of chronic stress, which can be preventable with the right techniques.

Read on to learn more about the possible connection between stress and weight gain and how you can live resiliently despite any current stress or strain in your life. We’ve also highlighted resources for those who’d like to speak with a mental health professional about addressing stress-related weight gain through long-term stress management. 

Are you eating to cope with stress?

The link between stress and weight gain 

Stress, especially chronic stress, has the potential to have a significant impact on weight. When we experience stress, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels can lead to increased blood sugar and the desire to seek out comfort food, which in turn can cause weight gain or interfere with weight loss efforts. And while this is often viewed as a women's health concern, stress-related weight gain can impact people of all genders. 

Long-term, stress-related weight gain can increase the risk of developing various health conditions, such as heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and even breast cancer. Stress can also decrease the motivation for physical activity, further contributing to weight gain and an increased risk of health conditions. 

If you're experiencing stress-related weight gain, it's essential to find a doctor who can provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Your doctor can provide additional information as well as a medically reviewed plan that includes physical activity and a balanced diet can help manage weight and reduce stress.

What does stress do?

Before we can explore the link between stress and weight fluctuation, it can help to define what stress is, and what it can do in a human. 

Stress is considered by many to be a physical reaction to danger or a challenge. It can make your heart race, your muscles tense up, your breathing speed up and your blood pressure increase.

All that can be good when you're dealing with an emergency. But in the long run, it can change the way your body and brain function (especially if there’s no true threat).

Can stress cause weight gain?

Scientists have been studying the possible effects of psychosocial stress on the human body for some time. Over time, research has come to light that suggests a possible link between weight gain and stress.  

For example, one study looked at the effects of stress on the parents of cancer patients. These stressed-out parents were scientifically suggested to be more likely to gain weight compared to the group of parents who had clinically healthy children. 

Research also suggests that this effect doesn’t discriminate based on someone’s age. In a study of adolescents, for example, those who reported being under the most stress had a higher percentage of body fat in their composition compared to those who were at ease. 

Despite the positive correlation and detail-based support for this hypothesis, there is no universal rule that states that all individuals who experience stress will gain weight. A stress response can be highly individualized and can also result in symptoms that have nothing to do with weight, or in sometimes that can perpetuate weight loss. 

Those who are experiencing stress can find support by speaking to their doctor about available treatment plans and lifestyle changes. 

How does stress cause weight gain?

Now that we’ve seen evidence that this can happen in some people, it’s time to explore how it can happen. 

Generally speaking, there are many possible explanations as to why weight gain can occur from stress—all of which are considered by many to be very individualized. We’ve listed some common root causes and mechanisms below for informational purposes. If you believe that your weight is changing due to stress, you may benefit from speaking with a qualified medical practitioner who can help. 

Below, we’ve listed some of the most common ways that stress can affect one’s weight:

High cortisol levels 

Cortisol is considered by many to be one of the most prevalent and well-known stress hormones. It can help to return your body back to normal after a fight-or-flight response to a dangerous or challenging situation. 

However, if the stressful situation is ongoing or the body doesn't return to its usual state, elevated cortisol levels can hang around in your system and cause several other health effects—including high blood pressure. Studies have linked high cortisol to obesity and insulin resistance, although further research is needed to define how this can manifest in specific patient populations. 

Additionally, the stress hormone cortisol can decrease the rate at which your metabolism functions. This can have direct implications on one’s weight and body composition. 

For example: In an Ohio State study by a nutritional biochemist, statestics found showing that women who reported one or more stressors burned 104 fewer calories than women who did not. Because these women burned fewer calories, the researchers concluded that the high stress levels could lead to significant weight gain in the long term.*

*Additional research is needed for those who identify as male, genderfluid, trans, non-binary or any other identity. 

Changes in habits

Besides the direct physical effects of stress, high stress can bring about several different changes in the way you eat—which can have implications that can affect your weight management experience. 

Many might find that changes in eating habits that can be related to stress may result in patterns of overeating, excessive consumption of unhealthy foods or a more sedentary lifestyle.

Here are some eating habit changes you may notice as a result of depression or stress: 

Eating for comfort

Have you ever ended a stressful day with a big pile of mashed potatoes, a huge helping of ice cream, or other high-calorie foods that could be considered comfort food? If so, you might have been turning to food to soothe yourself. 

Eating for convenience

Stressful situations can disrupt your daily routine. People in these situations over extended periods of time might choose their foods and quantities based on what's most convenient, rather than what’s healthiest. At times, this can create dietary or consumption-related concerns that can directly affect one’s weight. 

Skipping meals

If a stressful situation keeps you from your daily routine, you might find yourself skipping meals, which can interfere with healthy eating habits. At first thought, that might seem like the right thing to do if you want to avoid gaining weight. However, skipping meals can lower your metabolism and lead to unhealthy eating habits (or the formation of disorders, such as anorexia). 

It’s generally not a good idea to skip meals excessively, as this can directly impact your mental and physical health. Working with a dietician or a healthcare practitioner can help you to determine the healthiest frequency of consumption for your specific needs. 

How to avoid stress-related weight gain: Helpful strategies

If you’re experiencing stress, it can be helpful to know that there are several ways you can help yourself to stay healthy, despite the strain. One of the first things many choose to focus on is stress management.

Below, we’ve listed some additional practical strategies that you can leverage at any time to help control your weight loss or gain:

Exercise

It can be important to engage in physical activities or exercise every day. Daily exercise not only can help you burn fat; it also can help your body handle stress with more resiliency. 

Additionally, it can help you avoid medical and mental health conditions—including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and heart disease. 

Tracking your eating habits

When you're under a lot of pressure, you may not realize what your overall food intake consists of every day. Sure, you might notice that you had a candy bar at lunch, but you might not realize that you did that every day for the last week.

Tracking your food intake can be a good way to become aware of the food choices you're making. You can begin by writing down whatever you eat in a day, including how much you ate, when you ate it and how stressed you were at the time.

As you do this, it can be helpful to try to avoid a restrictive mentality. Instead, you can use this as a record and reference to give to your practitioner to help them help you come up with the healthiest eating habits possible in your specific situation. 

Are you eating to cope with stress?

Avoiding emotional eating

Eating fatty or sugary foods or overeating can bring momentary relief from symptoms of stress. Unfortunately, eating for comfort or other emotional reasons when you're feeling stressed can get to be a habit that can directly impact one’s weight. 

Mindfulness can be a helpful strategy to combat this tendency, as can online therapy.

Practicing stress reduction techniques

Because stress reactions can cause you to gain or lose weight independently of a diet, it can be helpful to find additional ways to cope with the stress. Stress reduction or relaxation techniques can help you do that. 

Some stress-reduction techniques that might help many can include mindfulness, meditation, guided imagery, yoga, systematic muscle relaxation, and deep breathing.

Engaging with online therapy

Online therapy has been identified by many as a resource that can help people to work through stress and make the changes needed to become healthy. It can also connect you with peer support and supplementary strategies offered by a licensed mental health professional—possibly helping you to have a higher quality of life. 

Many appreciate the convenience and affordability that online therapy can offer, connecting you with a therapist on your schedule. This can be especially helpful for those who may feel as if they don’t have time or resources available to seek help in times of stress. 

Is online therapy effective? 

Evidence cited by the National Council on Aging has suggested that online therapy can offer comparable benefits to in-person therapeutic methods. A recent Frontiers in Psychiatry study found that these benefits can extend to patients of all ages, further indicating the efficacy of online therapy as a first-line modality to support those experiencing stress and mental health conditions. 

Takeaway

Chronic stress can cause weight fluctuation, as well as other mental and physical health effects. However, with the right help, many can learn how to lower stress overall, manage the necessary stress in their lives more effectively, and build a healthier lifestyle that supports the quality of life they deserve.
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