Stressed Out? Why Stress Might be Stopping You from Losing Weight and What to Do About It.

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD

The idea that too much stress is bad for long-term health is not news to anyone. The media provides constant reminders that stress is linked to heart disease, mood disorders, and other chronic conditions.  

Stress can also lead to weight gain or impede weight loss efforts. If you find yourself gaining weight despite eating healthy foods and exercising, stress may be the culprit. 

The dangers of stress have sparked a conversation about reducing stress and pursuing more balanced lifestyles to avoid long-term impacts. Taking control of stress is of course easier said than done! 

Even with all of this attention on stress reduction and prevention, finding your zen can be difficult. Not to mention if you are trying to lose weight and think that stress is preventing your success, you may feel even more discouraged and stressed out.  

Learning about why stress can prevent weight loss may help you address the root causes of your stress and see more results.   

Read on to learn more about the connection between stress and weight loss, and how you can start using simple techniques for stress relief! 

Emotional Eating 

Do you find yourself mindlessly eating a tub of ice cream after a breakup, long week at work, or other stressful events? Or do you head straight to the fast food drive through for a burger and fries when life gets crazy?  

If you answered yes, you’re not alone. During times of stress, most people seek comfort in food. There are several reasons for choosing unhealthy foods when you feel stressed out.  

For one, you may be seeking the psychological satisfaction that certain foods provide. Your body’s desire for sugary or high fat foods kicks into gear so that you can feel the immediate pleasure from these choices.  

After years of practice, your body knows that you will probably feel better from the quick blood sugar boost. That is, until your energy levels crash shortly after you eat. 

You may also choose less healthy foods during times of stress for their convenience, whether you realize it or not. Instead of reaching for nutritious foods that actually provide lasting energy, people tend to eat foods that they can have immediately.  

Even though most people can get baby carrots as quickly as they can grab a cookie, they usually do not associate fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods with convenience. So, cookies and chips it is!  

When choosing ice cream and fries over balanced meals becomes a regular occurrence, weight gain can result.  

However, the food choices that you make when you feel stressed are not the only reasons for gaining weight from stress.  

In fact, the most powerful effect that stress has on your body’s ability to lose weight has to do with hormones. 

Stress and Hormones 

The body releases cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, when it senses threats. In the past, humans needed sufficient energy to address the threats they faced from wild animals and other daily stresses related to survival and feeding their families.  

In some cases, they may have burned large amounts of calories just getting away from an active threat. So, cortisol was released to tell the body to replace energy supplies. 

People do not need as much energy to address common stressors today, but cortisol is still released during times of stress, even if that stress is just worrying about work deadlines and bills. Chronic stress leads to a continued release of this hormone over time.  

With cortisol pumping through your veins in response to stress, your body holds onto fat and tries to stop it from being released from fat stores. Plus, you may feel hungrier and end up eating more. As a result, you can gain weight.  

Stress also makes your body less sensitive to insulin, the hormone that tells your cells to absorb sugar from the blood. This also has to do with the human body’s natural defense mechanisms.  

During times of stress, the body ensures that you always have energy available and that your blood sugar does not get too low. To accomplish this, your cells become less responsive to insulin so that enough sugar can circulate in the bloodstream.  

As a result, you may crave and eat more carbohydrates because your cells are not able to use the circulating sugar. This is another reason for overeating and related weight gain during stress. 

Sleep Disturbances  

People who are stressed out tend to experience sleep disturbances. For some people, stress can cause fatigue and lead to sleeping more than usual. In others, chronic stress causes insomnia and restless sleep.  

Not getting enough sleep or getting poor quality sleep can promote weight gain. When you are not well rested, hormones tell your body to consume quick acting energy in the form of sugar or refined carbohydrates.  

Plus, people who do not get enough good sleep may choose more processed convenience foods over healthy foods that they have to prepare.  

Skipping Meals  

The final reason that stress can contribute to weight gain or prevent weight loss is related to inconsistent eating patterns on busy days.  

Eating consistently and not skipping meals can help people lose and maintain weight. On stressful days, it can become more difficult to eat. Your schedule may prevent you from eating a meal or you might forget to eat in the midst of your busy day.  

Skipping meals may lead to cravings and overeating later in the day that can cause weight gain.  

How to Reduce Stress 

Even though limiting stress may seem nearly impossible, there are plenty of small changes you can make to improve stress levels. Following some of these simple tips may be the key to losing weight, especially if you find yourself gaining weight despite efforts with diet and exercise. 

1. Exercise

This may seem like a no-brainer, but exercise can dramatically reduce stress. Getting your heart rate up promotes the release of endorphins, or “feel good hormones.” By grabbing your sneaks and hitting the pavement for a walk or run, you can also release built up tension in the body.  

Cardio is not the only type of exercise that can reduce stress. In fact, too much cardio may actually spike cortisol. Yoga, tai chi, and weight bearing exercises are less intense and also decrease stress.  

2. Practice Meditation  

Learning how to meditate can help you become more mindful and feel less stressed. Meditation involves deep focus to achieve a clear mind.   

If you are interested in trying meditation, the phone apps Calm and Headspace are great places to start. You can even start by simply focusing on taking deep breaths for short periods of time throughout the day.  

3. Practice Mindful Eating 

Mindful eating involves being aware of the foods you are eating, appreciating the tastes and flavors of your meal, and not rushing through meals. Instead of scarfing down dinner in front of the TV, consider taking the time to sit at the table and eat your meal.  

You may find that this both reduces stress levels and prevents mindless overeating.  

4. Try Journaling

If eating has become an outlet for you during times of stress, try other activities. Keeping a journal can relax your mind and help you release stress. To start journaling, you can write about your day before bed or find a journal with prepared prompts to answer.  

5. Listen to Music  

That’s right, even the simple act of listening to music can calm you down. Next time you find yourself stuck in traffic, stressed out at work, or lying in bed trying to turn off your racing thoughts, put on a song that relaxes you. Most people find that slow tempos or classical music have a relaxing effect.  

6. Get a Massage  

Massage therapy can release tension in the body and promote relaxation. Massages are widely available in most areas, and some studios offer discounts for returning customers. Some health care providers may have recommendations for studios or massage therapists. 

Note from Healthy for Life Meals:  When trying to lose weight, planning and meal prep can be a major stressor.  Let our nutrition and culinary team take the work, and guesswork, out of the equation for you.  Get started today. 

Stef Keegan