Chronic stress can cause physiological changes in the body that lead to weight gain.

For some people, gaining weight can cause further stress. Understanding the relationship between stress and weight gain can help people recognize and manage these aspects of their health.

This article explains the connection between stress and weight gain, including how stress-related weight gain happens, and how to help prevent it.

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According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress is a normal reaction to everyday pressures. Nonetheless, chronic stress can negatively affect both psychological and physical health.

Medical professionals know that chronic stress can cause weight gain, and studies show links between chronic stress and obesity.

A 2022 review explains that stress can cause weight gain in the following ways:

  • by interfering with cognitive processes such as self-regulation
  • by increasing levels of hormones and chemicals involved in hunger, such as leptin and ghrelin
  • by causing people to overindulge in foods that are high in calories, fat, and sugar
  • by disrupting sleep, which itself can contribute to weight gain
  • by depleting energy levels and causing people to engage in less physical activity

When a person experiences stress, their body reacts by releasing hormones that trigger the “fight-or-flight” response. These hormones divert blood flow away from the digestive tract and toward the muscles and organs that are essential for immediate survival. As a result, digestive processes slow down.

The stress hormone “cortisol” temporarily increases blood glucose levels, giving the person the energy they need to deal with the immediate stressor. Once the perceived threat is over, blood glucose levels return to normal.

However, if a person experiences prolonged or “chronic” stress, their body does not get the chance to recover.

As a 2022 review explains, cortisol increases blood glucose levels, which in turn increases blood insulin levels. Chronic stress may cause persistently high insulin levels. This can lead to insulin resistance, in which the body’s cells no longer respond correctly to insulin. One effect of this is increased abdominal fat and overall weight gain.

People with chronic stress may experience intense cravings for fatty or sugary foods in an attempt to control their blood sugar levels.

High levels of cortisol also interfere with the way the body makes other hormones, including corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This hormone helps control appetite, so low levels may lead a person to eat more than usual.

Recognizing the relationship between stress and overeating, or “comfort eating,” may be the first step in helping prevent stress-related weight gain.

Some people may benefit from keeping a diary of their stressors and a record of the foods they eat or the amount they eat during times of stress. This will help people detect patterns in their eating behavior and modify these behaviors accordingly.

Some people may benefit from talk therapy, which can help people recognize unhelpful behavioral patterns and develop the tools to overcome them. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also be a helpful therapy.

A 2017 systematic review suggests that mindfulness training can also help people control their weight. Mindfulness exercises teach people to monitor their experiences in a nonjudgmental way. Practicing mindfulness while eating can encourage a person to be fully aware of their feelings while consuming food.

These exercises can help people recognize what is driving them to seek out fatty, sugary, high calorie foods, and moderate their behavior accordingly.

Other tips for helping prevent stress-related weight gain are outlined below.

Reducing stress

While it is not always possible to reduce the causes of stress, it is often possible to reduce its effect on day-to-day life.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following self-care tips for reducing the impact of stress:

  • taking regular breaks throughout the day to engage in enjoyable activities
  • spending time outdoors in nature
  • socializing and spending time with friends
  • being physically active
  • eating healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • limiting alcohol
  • quitting smoking
  • getting enough sleep
  • meditating
  • practicing breathing exercises

Managing cravings and ‘bad’ eating habits

Mindfulness training can help people understand why they are craving certain foods, enabling them to make a conscious decision about whether or not to eat something.

Other practical tips for managing cravings and “bad” eating habits include:

  • drinking plenty of water to help promote feelings of fulness and reduce hunger
  • eating healthy foods, including lean proteins, which may help promote satiety
  • eating regularly to maintain blood sugar levels and avoid sugar “crashes” that can lead to comfort eating
  • waiting some time before indulging in a craving in the hope that it will pass
  • eating smaller quantities of craved foods
  • distracting oneself with other activities, such as going for a walk, or taking a bath

Stress is a normal reaction to everyday pressures. However, chronic stress can cause physiological changes in the body, which can lead to weight gain. For some people, gaining weight can further contribute to stress, resulting in a vicious circle.

Stress causes hormonal changes that can increase blood sugar levels and blood insulin levels, causing people to crave foods high in calories, fat, and sugar. Stress can also disrupt levels of other hormones involved in hunger and satiety and can impair cognitive processes such as self-regulation. All these factors can result in weight gain.

Recognizing the relationship between stress and overeating is the first step to tackling stress-related weight gain. Techniques a person can try include keeping a diary of stress and eating behaviors and practicing mindful eating.

People can also try methods for managing cravings, such as staying well hydrated, eating more protein, and engaging in activities that distract from cravings.