What “Stress Fat” Is and How to Lose it

Updated January 13, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Stress, especially chronic stress like from a high-pressure job or anxiety, can impact anyone. However, it impacts us all differently. Some people undergoing chronic stress lose weight. Other people gain weight that they often find hard to use. This kind of fat is often nicknamed "stress fat." But what is stress fat, and what can you do about it?

Let Go Of The Stress That Weighs You Down - Therapy Can Help

Here, we'll talk about what kind of stress causes stress fat, how stress causes stress fat and ways that you can try to combat stress fat through diet and lifestyle changes and by managing your stress.

Stress vs Chronic Stress

Everyone experiences stress but not everyone who experiences stress has problems with weight and not everyone with weight problems can blame stress. That's partial because, as mentioned in the introduction, stress affects different people differently. It's also because your body is meant to handle some level of stress.

On the surface, all stress is the same. Your mind perceives a threat and initiates the stress response. The stress response causes your heart rate to increase and it routes blood flow away from your internal organs and toward your muscles. It also causes your breath to become faster and shallower. It also causes the release of some messenger molecules into the body that can, directly and indirectly, contribute to how your body uses and stores energy. We'll talk more about those later.

Where stress can start to contribute to weight gain when stress becomes chronic. Your body is meant to take the effects of stress when stress comes up occasionally. However, when you're stressed all or most of the time, that can start to cause health problems including weight problems, heart disease, circulatory issues, and other complications.

Most people who have chronic stress have chronic stress because of pressure at work, school, or in their relationships, or because they have a stress disorder like anxiety. People with these disorders may have a stress response over things that wouldn't cause it in most people. They may also experience a stress response so extreme that they have trouble breathing or experience chest pain. If you think that you might have a stress disorder, talk to your healthcare provider.

How Chronic Stress Causes Stress Fat: Messenger Molecules

Now that we have an understanding of what stress is and what kind of stress causes stress fat, we can talk about how chronic stress causes stress fat. This happens in two main ways and one of those has to do with some of the "messenger molecules" that we briefly mentioned above.

There are a number of these chemicals involved in the stress response but the one that directly contributes to fat is called "cortisol." Cortisol changes how your body uses energy. Imbalanced cortisol can lead to weight problems and some scientists believe that it may cause you to crave high-fat and high-energy foods. Your body's metabolism - the rate at which it uses energy - is usually elevated during the stress response but if you intake more energy than your body uses, the rest is stored as fat. We'll talk a little more about fat from your diet in the next section.

Another messenger molecule that can indirectly cause stress fat is called "Leptin." Leptin is a messenger molecule released by fat cells in the body. The role of leptin is to tell the body that it doesn't need any more food. However, if there is too much of a chemical in the brain it can "wear out" receptors so that they ignore the message. This means that people with a higher amount of body fat can have a harder time feeling satisfied when they eat, leading them to eat more. This can lead to a vicious cycle of weight gain that can start with stress.

Cortisol and Leptin are the most important messenger molecules related to stress fat but they aren't the only ones. Another chemical called "Dopamine" can also play a role, though scientists are at odds as to how important it is. Dopamine is a "feel-good chemical" that the body releases to reward you for doing things that are good for you. It's released during activities like exercise and sex. It's also released when you eat energy-rich and fat-rich foods. That's because, in our ancient ancestors when the brain's reward system was evolving, energy-rich and fat-rich foods were hard to come by. Now that that's not the case, eating things like sweets and fried foods still releases those feel-good chemicals. Some scientists believe that that can make these foods chemically addictive. Even if that's not the case, the mood boost that these foods can provide can certainly be more appealing if you are otherwise stressed out.

How Chronic Stress Causes Stress Fat: Diet and Lifestyle Changes

Most people who "stress eat" don't only do so because of uncontrollable urges. They also do so because of convenience. This is especially the case for people who experience chronic stress because of stressful occupations or study schedules. After all, making a healthy meal takes a lot of time, and having one delivered, eating one in the car, or picking one up takes virtually no time at all. The problem is that prepared foods and fast foods are usually what are called "energy-rich and nutrient-poor" - they provide your body with fats and sugars but not much else.

If you're stressed because of a tight schedule, you are also less likely to find time to exercise. We already talked a little bit about what's called the "energy balance equation." This equation simply states that if you use more energy than you take in you lose weight and if you take in more energy than you use you gain weight. That means that even if your eating habits don't change you can gain weight by dropping your exercise routine.

Losing Stress Fat: Eating Right

The danger of understanding how messenger molecules affect food choice is that some people use this knowledge as an excuse rather than as a tool. There are discussions in psychology regarding stress eating and food addictions but there are also discussions in psychology about "the irresistible impulse vs. the impulse not resisted." Even though stress can make unhealthy diet choices more appealing, you have to control your diet if you want to control your weight.

One of the best ways to do this is to turn your body's reward program toward healthier foods. Fats, carbs, and sugars aren't bad for you in moderation and your body will still thank you for getting them from healthy sources. Healthy fats come from plants rather than animals. Healthy carbs come from whole grains rather than baked and processed foods. Sugars are sugars but when you get them from sources like fruits you're getting healthy nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals that you aren't getting when all of your sugars come from sweets. Instead of looking for a diet that cuts out fats, sugars, and carbs, develop a diet that sources these necessary nutrients from healthy foods and in healthy amounts.

As for eating healthier foods when you're in a hurry, try to prepare bulk meals in advance and heat them when you need them. This allows you more control over your diet and more control over your schedule so that you can healthy while eating on the go.

Losing Stress Fat: Increase Activity

Let Go Of The Stress That Weighs You Down - Therapy Can Help

Returning to the energy balance equation, you can also do your body some good by increasing your activity levels. Again, this should be used by people who have a healthy diet and are still having problems with weight gain, not by people who want excuses to maintain poor diets by increasing their activity level.

Also revisiting a familiar concept, the body's rewards system can be used to encourage physical activity just like it can be used to encourage healthy eating.

The same reward system that encourages you to eat fats and sugars encourages you to exercise by releasing feel-good chemicals like dopamine and a class of chemicals called endorphins. These can help to boost your mood in the short term and regulate it in the long term. Getting exercise, especially if you get it outside, can also help you to maintain a healthy sleep schedule, which is important because sleep patterns are sometimes a problem for people with anxiety.

Keep in mind as well that physical activity can indirectly combat stress fat as well. Remember leptin, the messenger molecule that your body is flooded with when you have too much body fat? Losing body fat can reduce the volumes of leptin in your body to the point that your body can interact with it again to help reduce your cravings.

Losing Stress Fat: Managing Stress

In the case of stress fat, managing your weight isn't just a matter of physical activity and eating right. It's also a matter of managing your stress. If you can manage your stress, you can gain greater control over your body and if you manage your schedule you can gain greater control over your diet, activity, and overall health.

If your chronic stress comes from something like your work or education, look for ways that you can step back from non-essential activities to make more time for things like maintaining your health. If you have chronic stress because of a disorder like anxiety, talk to your healthcare provider for further help.

Losing Stress Fat: The War on Two Fronts

The takeaway from this article should be that combatting stress fat should be a conversation between you, your healthcare provider, and possibly a mental health expert.

Real and lasting weight loss can be done alone but can be done in healthier and more efficient ways with the help of a healthcare provider. Managing stress fat by managing stress may require the help of a mental health expert.

If you get diagnosed with an anxiety disorder it may help you find mental health services by helping you pay for things like counseling and therapy. 

Whether you have a diagnosis or not, you can look into therapy or counseling and one of the easiest ways to do this is to look into therapy or counseling online. Online counseling and therapy are more affordable and more flexible than in-person therapy.

To learn more about how you can benefit from online therapy and counseling, visit https://www.betterhelp.com/online-therapy/.

Below are commonly asked questions on this topic:

How do you get rid of stress fat?
Is stress fat harder to lose?
Where does stress fat go?
Does the stress belly go away?
How do I fight cortisol weight gain?
Why am I getting fat when I don't eat much?
How do you stop the hormonal weight gain?
Why do I gain weight when I eat less?
What is a stress belly?
What foods reduce cortisol levels?

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