What “Stress Fat” Is And How To Lose It

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Experts have long concluded that there is often a connection between how we experience stress and how it impacts us physically. Physical symptoms of stress, however, may vary between people. What manifests as a prominent symptom in one person may not appear at all for another. 

For some people, chronic stress does not affect their eating habits or weight. Others may lose weight, and other people may gain weight that they find difficult to lose. The accumulation of extra weight due to stress-related changes in the body is often nicknamed "stress fat." 

In this post, we will discuss the mechanisms in the body that cause a buildup of “stress fat,” the types of stress that may cause weight gain, and ways that you can try to manage stress fat. through diet, lifestyle changes, and stress management.

Stress negatively impacts more than just body weight

Stress vs chronic stress

When we experience a situation that the mind determines is a threat, a stress response is initiated in the brain, releasing hormones that signal to the rest of the body. The body interprets these signals and responds accordingly to either fight, flee, or freeze. Our heart rate may increase, routing blood flow away from the internal organs toward the muscles. The breath may become quicker and shallower. This process may also cause the release of messenger molecules into the body that can, directly and indirectly, contribute to how it uses and stores energy. 

When stress becomes chronic, that is, regularly or constantly, it can cause more serious health problems, including unhealthy weight gain, heart disease, circulatory issues, and other complications.

Many people experience chronic stress due to pressures at work, school, or relationships. But for some, chronic stress is associated with anxiety and depressive disorders. People with these disorders may have an elevated stress response to many things. They may also experience a stress response so extreme that it results in episodes of extreme chest pain, difficulty breathing, gastrointestinal distress, and more. 

How chronic stress causes stress fat: Messenger molecules

There are a number of chemicals involved in the stress response, but cortisol and leptin appear to have a large bi-directional connection with each other and the stress response to influence how we eat and metabolize food

  • Cortisol affects the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats. This chemical reaction creates an energy surge in the body, aiding our fight or flight response when faced with a threatening situation. When that energy surge is due to stressors that do not require us to fight or flee (like daily stress), we do not need to expend the energy to react to that threat. Nonetheless, our appetite still increases, usually for sweet, salty, and fatty foods.
  • Leptin is released by fat cells in the body to signal satiety (feeling full) and lets the body know it no longer requires extra nutrients for energy, thus maintaining your normal body weight. As the level of body fat increases with time, so do leptin levels, and vice versa. When our leptin levels are elevated, it can reduce the body’s sensitivity to it, causing leptin resistance. The resistance causes increased levels of leptin to be released into the body, decreasing its ability to signal satiety, and causing us to eat more.

Diet and lifestyle changes to reduce stress fat

For some, stress management and weight management go hand in hand. For example, not only does a healthy, balanced diet help control our weight- but research suggests nutrient-dense foods also help control the chemicals in the body that modify our stress response. The same principle is true for regular exercise and a healthy sleep schedule. 

Making multiple changes in habits and behavior may seem like an insurmountable task, but it is possible with effort, time, support, and a solid plan. 

Follow a balanced diet and healthy eating habits

Our body naturally requires us to consume foods containing a variety of vitamins and nutrients for good health, including foods containing fats, sugars, and carbohydrates. But there is a profound difference between the foods that contain the fats, sugars, and carbs that contribute to unhealthy weight gain and those that do not. 

Studies indicate that processed foods and foods made with refined sugars, saturated fats, and processed flour significantly contribute to weight gain. Examples include chips and snack crackers, soft drinks, frozen meals, and fast food.  For many Americans, these are the foods that make up most of our diet, and they are also the foods that contain the least nutritional value. 

But there are whole foods found in nature that contain the fats, sugars, and carbs our bodies need in the form and quantities that we can use nutritionally. For example- avocadoes, seeds and nuts, and fatty fishes are healthy sources of protein. Fruits and sweeter vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots contain complex sugars our bodies need. Legumes, whole grains, oats, and beans are sources of the natural carbohydrates our bodies need for energy. 

Plan ahead

Not only does stress affect the chemistry in the body to influence what we crave, but it may also affect when and how we eat. Stress often accompanies a hectic schedule and vice versa. When our calendar is so booked that we do not t have time to prepare healthy meals, we may resort to take-out, delivery, and the drive-through. Not only is restaurant food typically less healthy than home-cooked meals, but fast on-the-go eating has connections with metabolic syndrome, a condition “correlated with greater weight gain, higher blood sugar, higher levels of low-density lipoprotein, or “bad,” cholesterol, and a larger waistline.”

One of the best ways to avoid resorting to unhealthy eating in a rush is to try to prepare bulk meals in advance and cook them when you need them. Keep easy, portable healthy snacks to toss in your bag when you get hungry on the road to resist the temptation to hit the drive-through or gas station junk food. 

Stress negatively impacts more than just body weight

Increase activity

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 control it in the long term. Keep in mind as well that not only will physical activity help you shed excess fat, but it also helps balance and control leptin and cortisone- the messenger molecules that sabotage the metabolism when unbalanced. 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.

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 a healthy sleep schedule

Just like a healthy diet and regular physical activity, healthy sleep habits have a significant relationship with both stress and obesity. Also, like diet and exercise- the relationship is chemical. Insufficient sleep causes a hormone imbalance that promotes weight gain and overeating and increases cortisol, increasing anxiety and affecting weight gain.  

Keeping a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and waking at the same time every day is a good start, as is adopting a healthy bedtime routine, avoiding caffeine at least five hours before bedtime, and reading a book instead of looking at a screen. The CDC provides more tips on keeping a healthy sleep schedule to stay physically and mentally. 

Manage your stress 

One of the primary ways to avoid gaining stress fat is to effectively manage your stress levels. How you choose to do this is a matter of personal preference, but how to do it effectively may also require some guidance. Aside from gaining stress fat, unaddressed stress can lead to physical problems in other systems in the body. Unmanaged stress can also progress into much more serious mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, depression, and more. In these cases, seeking the help of a professional mental health therapist is an option available to you. 

Seeking professional guidance 

When beginning any diet and exercise program, it’s best to consult your primary care physician for a physical examination. Your primary healthcare provider can also refer you to a mental health professional to help you identify the factors in your life that cause the most stress and develop effective coping mechanisms to deal with them as they arise. You can also contact your insurance company who can give you a list of local providers, and an internet search can give you information as well. 

Many people encounter barriers when seeking help from a traditional local therapist, however. Not only can it be difficult to make appointments and commute into your busy schedule (which may be one of the causes of your stress to begin with), but many therapists don’t take insurance- making therapy unaffordable for some. 

Online therapy is a popular solution to these obstacles, and since its rise in popularity, multiple research studies have proven it’s as effective as traditional therapy for treating a wide range of mental health disorders. For example, a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research surveyed 264 employed people 18 years and older reporting high levels of workplace stress. The findings indicated that “Web- and mobile-based intervention has proven effective in reducing stress in employees in the long term. Internet-based stress management interventions should be further pursued as a valuable alternative to face-to-face interventions.”

If you’re ready to make positive, healthy changes in your life, visit your doctor, then find a therapist experienced in working with patients trying to cope with stress. 

Online platforms like BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed, accredited mental health professional on a schedule tailored to your needs. Speak to a BetterHelp therapist via phone, text, online messaging, or video chat to get started. 

Takeaway

Stress is a natural response in the human body that helps us to manage a threat. However, in excess, this response can lead to a number of physical issues, including the accumulation of fat. In this article, you may have learned new strategies in how to manage stress and reduce your risk for weight gain related to this innate human response. These include eating healthy whole foods, regular exercise, and good sleep hygiene. When these strategies are not enough, or if you simply want a professional to help develop a plan for stress management, reach out for a qualified mental health therapist to get you started.
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