Stress causes weight gain

Relationship struggles, a new job with higher expectations, a parking fine, planning a family vacation; whatever it may be, stress plays a toll on all of us at some point in our lives. Apart from feelings of anxiety and frustration, stress can actually affect the number that we see on the scales. If we are juggling a lot at once or under a significant amount of pressure, the stress that accompanies this can cause us to forget about our body’s needs. Unfortunately, this can lead to increased appetite, cravings and weight gain.

An important player in the relationship between stress and weight is the neuroendocrine system (basically, our brain to body connection). If we take a look back to when our ancestors were alive, we can see how the neuroendocrine system really played its part. When our ancestors were threatened by a bear, tiger or other fatally dangerous animal their ‘fight or flight’ response would kick in. The release of certain hormones would tell them that they need to either fight the danger, or quickly flee from it. Of course in some parts of the world people still deal with these kind of dangers and stressors. But for other people in today’s society, an unpaid bill or a leaking roof may just be enough to set off this ‘fight or flight’ response. When faced with stressors that we do not need to expend any physical energy for (such as running away from a lion), we are not fighting, and nor are we flighting. In fact, it has become normal for us to just sit with our anger and frustration, and when that happens we are more likely to reach for food.  Food is used to fill a void, soothe an upset, grind through a frustration, distract us from pain, or to stimulate us out of a motivation or boredom slump. Our neuroendocrine system doesn’t know which action we have chosen to take so it still releases the same hormones. These hormones are the ones that can affect hunger and cravings.

First off, adrenaline is released for a boost of instant energy (to be used to fight our enemy or run away from it). Cortisol, an important hormone in the maintenance of blood pressure is also released.  During the ‘fight or flight’ response our bodies need sugar (for energy so that our ancestors could flee from danger) and this is why you may crave carbohydrates when stressed. When we eat this sugar insulin is released to move the sugar from the blood into the muscles. So, with long-term stress come elevated cortisol levels, insulin levels and sugar levels [1]. Since our body does not really need the excess sugar, it is forced to store it as fat, and usually as visceral fat in the abdomen. This area is labelled a danger zone for fat cells particularly because it causes an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes [2].  In fact, some scientists have been able to show that abdomen fat actually welcomes more fat when hit with stress [3].

As stress hormones increase, there is a knock on effect in our body. The way we interact with our environment changes. Our sensors change subtly, for example sweet receptors are turned up in our tongues, we favour sweet things, our fat receptors are turned down, we consume more fat without realising it. Our brain changes, we start thinking with the more primal less complex part of our brain, we make impulsive quick decisions rather than rational considered ones, we favour hedonistic rewards other eudonistic ones (like feeling physically good now rather than focusing on a bigger purpose goal like being a good role model or planning the meals for the week). Our brain also starts to ask for sugar… and because it is stressed it wants apple pie, not an apple.  All the while, our internal physiology changes… our body becomes programmed to store fat.   Insulin is high so we are storing fat, not burning it.  Our fat receptors in gut are turned on to storage mode.  Our body is also holding on to stored fat rather than releasing it… and the cycle continues.

Once we give in to our bodies cravings for sugary carbohydrates when we’re stressed it becomes somewhat of a learned behaviour and becomes easier to repeat whenever faced with similar situations. It’s important to know how to break the cycle, lower the stress levels and stop the weight gain and cravings. Try the following strategies – they may seem obvious, but that’s because they really do work!

1.     Exercise: exercising produces bio-chemicals that can combat some of the effects of stress hormones.

2.     Eat a healthy, diverse and balanced diet: Try not to skip meals; this will keep blood sugar levels constant throughout the day.

3.    Choose complex carbohydrates, (like whole fruit, whole vegetables, whole grains like brown rice and rolled oats, beans, lentils) and eat plenty of good vegetable and oils like those found in nuts, seeds, avocado, and fish.

4.     Drink at least 2 litres of water a day: This helps to replenish water lost and flush toxins from the body.

5.     Get 8 hours of sleep everyday: A lack of sleep can actually increase cortisol levels which can affect hunger, cravings and cause weight gain.

If you need more help on how to manage your stress, cravings, appetite or weight please feel free to email Lisa for a consultation –



[1] Randell, M. (2010). The Physiology of stress: cortisol and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. Retrieved from
[2] Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. (2005). Abdominal fat and what to do about it. Retrieved from

[3]Maglione-Garves, C., Kravitz, L., & Schneider, S. Cortisol connection: tips on managing stress and weight. Retrieved from

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Posted on Apr 7, 2015 - Last updated on Apr 7, 2015

About the Author

Lisa Cutforth is the founder of Size Fantastic. A nutritionist and foodie with a degree in Nutrition with Psychology and a passion for health, Lisa’s ambition is to take health off the “too hard” shelf and restore her clients confidence in themselves and their ability to heal and be well… Size Fantastic to us means: looking and feeling great, inside and out!