How Stress Makes You Fat

A number of studies have shown that stress leads to weight gain, partly by increasing the body's cravings for sugary carbs and fatty foods.
05/23/2012 11:48 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

How many times have you heard someone say "it's just stress"? There's no "just" about it -- stress has been linked to depression, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, breast cancer and other diseases. And when it comes to food, eating, digestion and weight, stress is a critical factor.

A number of studies have shown that stress leads to weight gain,[1] partly by increasing the body's cravings for sugary carbs and fatty foods.[2] In one study, a group of college-age men and women were told that they would have to prepare a short speech that would be recorded and assessed for quality. All of the participants were so stressed by this news that their blood pressure went up and their mood declined. Then they were presented with a selection of food and told that they could eat as much as they wanted. All of the stressed-out group ate 88 percent more fatty, sugary foods than did their unstressed counterparts in a control group.[3]

It's not just that being tense makes you crave cupcakes; stress also initiates a complex web of hormonal influences that may prompt the body to hang on to fat. And when you're stressed, your ability to digest food is also vastly compromised. It's well-known that stress greatly exacerbates digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); in one interesting small study of 12 subjects from 1989, deep relaxation was significantly more important than thorough chewing in terms of starting the digestive process.[4]

The solution is simple: Reduce stress and eat slowly. Don't just take my word for it. A number of studies have borne this out. For example, in one study, simple mindful eating and stress-reduction techniques prevented overweight and obese women from gaining weight, without dieting. As an added bonus, the women who had the greatest reduction in stress also lowered their bodies' tendencies to hang onto deep belly fat, the kind of fat that's linked to heart disease and diabetes.[5]

There's no magic one-size-fits-all stress reduction plan, but some general approaches work for most people:

  • Try meditating. It's a surefire stress reducer; studies show that meditation combats stress, and some suggest it works by actually changing the brain.[6] Very few of us will park our rears on a cushion and sit still for two hours at a time -- but even smaller doses work. Cultivate the habit: Start with five minutes in the morning, and gradually work up to half an hour.

  • Get more sleep. If you don't get enough, or if your quality of sleep is poor, you'll be more likely to gain weight, partly because the sleep-deprived body craves carbs for quick energy, partly because glucose metabolism is affected.[7] In one study, people with high stress levels and poor sleep were less likely to achieve a 10-pound weight loss goal.[8]
  • Incorporate stress-reducing foods. If you're going through a trying time, foods that soothe nerves can help. Stay away from refined sugars, eat adequate protein, and be sure you're getting magnesium-rich greens, lots of vitamin C, and plenty of omega-3 fats.
  • Examine your priorities. What's your purpose on the planet? What's your life's work? If you haven't taken time to establish these, do so. Having a bigger vision keeps you out of the small stressors of daily life -- and makes living more enjoyable overall.
  • References:

    1. Torres SJ, Nowson CA. "Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity." Nutrition. 2007 Nov-Dec;23(11-12):887-94.

    2. Peters, A., Kubera, B., Hubold, C., et al. "The selfish brain: stress and eating behavior." Medical Clinic 1, University of Luebeck Luebeck, Germany. Frontiers in Neuroscience 2011; 5:74.

    3. Kozak AT, Fought A. "Beyond alcohol and drug addiction. Does the negative trait of low distress tolerance have an association with overeating?" Appetite. 2011 Dec;57(3): 578-81.

    4. Morse DR, et al. "Oral digestion of a complex-carbohydrate cereal: effects of stress and relaxation on physiological and salivary measures." Am J Clin Nutri, 1989; 49: 1, 97-105.

    5. Daubenmier J, et al. "Mindfulness intervention for stress eating to reduce cortisol and abdominal fat among overweight and obese women: an exploratory randomized controlled study." J Obes. 2011;2011:651936. Epub 2011 Oct 2.

    6. Hᅢᄊlzel BK, et al. "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density." Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011; 191 (1): 36.

    7. Weiss A, et al. "The Association of Sleep Duration with Adolescents' Fat and Carbohydrate Consumption." Sleep, 2010: 33:09.

    8. Elder CR, et al. "Impact of sleep, screen time, depression and stress on weight change in the intensive weight loss phase of the LIFE study." International Journal of Obesity, 2011:1-7.

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