Why does stress cause weight gain? 

by | Sep 11, 2019 | Weight management

Are you a Stress Eater? Or not at all? When stressed, do you find yourself starving or stuffing your body? In my 20 years of experience, I have seen clients and family members have different reactions to their stress. 


In my twenties, stress caused me to lose weight and be ill. I suffer from Ulcerative Colitis, and over the years, stress has been the cause of the inflammatory response to this chronic disease. Stress has debilitated me at times. But over the years, I have come to learn that stress is in my nature. There is good stress, and there is bad stress. Constant, continuous stress affects your health negatively and your weight. 


Healthy weight isn’t just about calories in and out. 


Stress has six effects that tie into your healthy weight status. Healthy weight is the weight where your body is at optimal health based on your age, height, activity and lifestyle. Your healthy weight is unique to you, it is not what I think, or society thinks. It is part of your natural human make-up and evolving life. 


Health Issues linked to stress.stress and sleep


You will not be shocked if I tell you that your stress is negatively affecting your health. But how, maybe the question? And understanding the effects can be the ticket to help you get your weight goals.


  • High blood pressure
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Insomnia
  • Obesity
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Colds and viruses – physical illness
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Diabetes
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohns, Colitis
  • Cancer


What is Stress? “fight or flight” vs rest and digest.”


Let’s start with the basics of stress. Stress is a healthy body response to a sense of danger. It is your body’s way of protecting you with a “fight or flight” reaction. Stress is essential for survival and our instinct to threat. When your body senses danger (real or imagined), it immediately reacts to alert you to be alert and fight or run away and hide ( “fight or flight”). 


In stressful situations, essential tasks for survival are a priority for survival. Your perception, decision-making, and energy for your muscles are heightened to respond. Less essential survival body functions like “rest and digest” are ignored until the stress levels start to fade. 


You probably know how stress affects you. Do you get cravings or heartburn? Do you feel more aches and pains, or get sick? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you have more difficulty losing weight?


Stress has a negative connotation in our busy lives. Recently someone asked me how I was doing? And I responded with, “I am stressed.” But then I felt the need to qualify my answer by stating that my current stress was “good stress”. 


There are good stressors and bad stressors. Identifying them is key to how stress will affect your life and healthy weight. This conversation had me thinking about good stressors vs bad stressors. Have you taken inventory of the stressors in your life? 


Good stress vs Bad stress


“Good” Stress

(Short, time limited, acute stress

“Bad Stress”

(Long term, constant, chronic stress)

  • Deadlines that make you more focused and have energy to complete tasks on time
  • Health illness or being a caregiver to someone
  • Reacting to an immediate danger or threat for your safety
  • Relationship, family problems, Unhappiness
  • Enjoying rollercoasters or dangerous activities like sky-diving
  • Work issues or busy schedules


Stress that is infrequent or short-lived is “good” stress. We can usually quickly identify good stress situations. When the stress is over, your body response goes back to normal. 


The problem is that in today’s fast-paced world, stress can go on for a long time. This type of stress is different and is “constant” or “chronic” and identified as “bad” stress. 


Chronic Bad Stress can affect your digestion, moods, sleep and your ability to manage your healthy weight. Studies show that chronic stress is associated with obesity and metabolic disease. And this is especially true for women. Women are at higher risk for stress-induced emotional eating and obesity.


Chronic stress can negatively affect your digestion, your mood, your health and keep you from your weight loss goals.



Six main areas of your health that stress is interfering with your health


There are six main areas of your health that stress is interfering with your health.

1. Digestion and gut health

2. Inflammation and the immune system

3. Food intake 

4. Excess weight gain 

5. Mental Health 

6. Sleep. 


1 – Poor Digestion and Gut Health


When your stress is causing your body to be in a constant “Flight or Fight” state, proper digestion is compromised because your digestive system does not give adequate time to “rest and digest.” 


One of the most apparent impacts stress has on digestion is the “transit time.” You may notice that stress can either quickly speed up how fast your food moves through you (diarrhea). Or, it may slow it down quite a bit (constipation). Neither one of these digestive reactions is ideal.


So, even if you’re eating the “best” diet, a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods, you may become nutrient deficient because your body is not properly digesting the nutrients in the food. Proper nutrition is needed at the best of times, let alone when you’re stressed and trying to lose weight or gain weight and achieve a healthy weight balance.


2 – Inflammation and immune system


Chronic stress affects your immune system, which is responsible for controlling inflammation in the body. Stress can make your immune system more alert or less-responsive to fight common colds. 


When your immune system is working overtime, you can develop high inflammatory levels of hormones, and this will affect your healthy weight. In contrast, when, your immune system is less-responsive, it can allow your body to get sick more often, and stay sick longer.


For optimal health, and the ability to remain at a healthy weight, you want your immune system to work correctly (not too high, nor too low).


3 – Cravings, increased appetite, and “stress eating.”


When you’re stressed, do you reach for kale? Or do you prefer chips or chocolate? 


Many people tend to overeat when they are stressed. I know better from my training and experience about stress eating. When I am in a stressful situation, I eat lots of chocolate and comfort foods that tend to be fatty and sugary. Scientists are now looking at interactions between stress hormones and the “hunger” and “fullness” hormones.


Many of my clients express that their long term stress caused a significant weight gain in their lives. Even when they try to control their stress, they find it challenging to get back to their pre-stress healthy weight. 


4 – Insulin sensitivity


Insulin is a hormone produced in your pancreas that regulates blood sugars in the body. Blood sugar levels naturally go up and down throughout the day, and your level is controlled by insulin. 


Stress increases your blood sugar, to make sure that your muscles have the fuel (sugar) to combat the stress. If your stress is not physical and does not need help from your muscles, excess blood sugar remains longer in your blood. As a response to the high blood sugar, your pancreas secretes insulin to re-absorb that sugar back into your cells. Excess insulin causes insulin resistance and extra fat storage. Chronic excess insulin can result in Type 2 Diabetes and difficulty controlling blood sugars. Type 2 diabetes has multiple adverse effects on your health. 


5 – Mood-busting and demotivating


When you’re feeling stressed, you may start feeling moody and want just to sit around. You may be less motivated to do healthy activities. If you’re down in the dumps and not motivated to prepare healthy meals or snacks or get some exercise, then you’re less likely to do those things. And we all know how important motivation is needed to prepare and consume a healthy diet. When we are not motivated, we tend to pick quick and fast unhealthy prepared meals that over the long term will cause weight gain.


6 – Negatively affects sleep


Cortisol is a hormone responsible for metabolism and immune function. It is part of your natural sleep-wake cycle. Under normal (non-stressed) conditions, cortisol levels would increase before waking up in the morning and slowly drop during the day. Cortisol helps improve mental clarity as well as blood sugar to fuel your muscles. You need mental clarity and to move our muscles, especially when you are awake.


But you also need the cortisol effect to “wear off” by the end of the day so you can start getting tired and relaxed enough to get a good night’s sleep. In other words, evenings are a time for resting and digesting. Science is showing the links between not getting enough quality sleep and obesity.


Now that you know the six primary reasons how stress is keeping you from your weight loss goals let’s talk about what you can do about it.


I will share with you strategies and tips on how to manage your stress and achieve your healthy weight. 


Two Main Stress-Reducing Tipsyou got this


1. First off, you can reduce the amount of stress put on you by re-balancing some demands.


Start by:


  • l Saying “no” more often to requests that only add stress to your life;
  • l Getting more support whether in meal planning, preparation, cooking, or cleaning;
  • l Delegating to someone else, asking for help from your partner, children or co-workers depending on the stressor;
  • l Re-negotiating deadlines that seem unreasonable, manage your schedule rather than your schedule leading you;
  • l When working, focus on just one thing at a time, stop multi-tasking and juggling too many stress-inducing responsibilities. 


2. Secondly, since you can’t (and maybe don’t want to) altogether remove stress from your life, you want to learn to deal with it better. You can improve your stress tolerance by trying to:


  • Have some fun and laugh. Laughter lightens up your mood and produces happiness;
  • Make time for people (and pets) you love;
  • Be mindful and live more “in the moment”;
  • Get moving and do light exercise most days per week (e.g. walking, yoga, swimming, or tai chi);
  • Spend more time in nature or just outside;
  • Eat a well balanced, nutrient-rich diet;
  • Relax every evening (e.g. have a bath or read a book);
  • Meditate or deep breathing. Listen to soothing music;
  • Do a “brain dump” every night before bed where you just make notes of things you’re keeping track of in your head so you can relax more;
  • Get more, better-quality sleep. Make sleep a priority and schedule it;


Letting go just a bit


Stress has six significant effects that can keep you from your weight loss goals and achieving a healthy balanced weight. It negatively affects your digestion and gut health, inflammation and the immune system. Stress causes cravings, increased appetite, and “stress eating.” It can promote fat storage around the waist with its effect on insulin sensitivity. Stress can be mood-busting and demotivating, not to mention how it worsens sleep.


All of these effects can keep you from your weight loss goals. And if your food and meals are significant stressors for you, then I encourage you to book a free 15-minute call with me. My specialty is to reduce stress around wondering what you will eat next. Contact me if your stress is interfering with your health in these five ways:

  • You don’t know what kinds of foods to shop for.
  • You don’t feel you have enough time in the day to eat healthily.
  • You don’t understand how food affects your body.
  • Meal planning overwhelms you.
  • Your digestive disorder is taking over your life. 


If you are unsure where to begin, but want to make a change in your life and change your relationship with food, then let’s have a conversation. Together we will figure out where you’re at right now, and where you would like to be in six to 12 months. I offer a one-time, free consultation, where you and I will have a conversation about whether or not we’re a good fit to work together, and whether nutritional coaching is the right step for you.


Your mind and body will thank you!


P.S. My signature LEAP program, is a four-week program designed to help you transition stages in life around food and healthy eating. You will learn about your patterns and food choices. You will also learn to organize your kitchen to maximize success and master the flow of creating healthy food choices as well as how to enhance the flavour of your foods so that you are not “dieting” but eating better than you ever have before and enjoying your meals.


Each week you will receive a new meal plan with recipes, preparation instructions and a grocery list. Also, you have access to me, a Registered Dietitian, who can answer any questions that come up along the way. I will teach you how to adapt recipes to your particular needs with ease. I will also show you that you don’t need to abandon a favourite recipe because of a “diet.” Instead, you will see how you can create plans that work for all types of situations: a busy week, a travel schedule, a meal prep week, and a craving home-cooked meals week. 



Get in touch with Keren and book a free 15-minute discovery call today!

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