Stress eating and weight gain – how to stop stress from working against you
Like most people, you probably have times when you are busier than usual and when your stress levels skyrocket. When this happens, you will likely feel some of the effects stress has on your body quite quickly. These may include headaches, tight neck, face, and shoulder muscles, irritation, and a general sense of overwhelm. What you may not notice immediately, or even know, is the correlation between stress and weight gain.
How does stress lead to weight gain? Two reasons - the first is simply that we often find it harder to stick to healthy habits when we are feeling stressed, which can lead to stress eating. The second is more scientific. Let’s unpack it all here.
Stress and weight gain
When we’re really busy and stressed out, we might be less likely to exercise and more likely to grab convenience food rather than take the time to prepare something more nutritious. Many people also have trouble sleeping when they're stressed, and research has linked insufficient sleep to feeling hungrier and more likely to overeat. Exhaustion can also reduce willpower and contribute to unhealthy eating habits and a lack of physical activity. On top of this, stress eating becomes prevalent as many people tend to snack more frequently when they’re anxious or stressed out.
Now for the scientific part. When we’re hit by stress, our bodies go into “fight or flight” mode. We release hormones designed to give us a quick hit of energy, but this has other effects too:
Stress spurs on a vicious cycle- our bodies release cortisol, our appetite increases, we crave high-energy foods, and this can all contribute to weight gain from stress. Research has also shown that the weight that people gain as a result of cortisol spikes is often around the abdomen.
Stress is a normal part of our work and home lives, so we need to learn what we can do when we’re feeling stressed to avoid gaining weight. Here are a few tips to separate the association between stress and weight gain.
Physical activity is a win-win, because it helps you burn calories as well as reduce your stress levels. Walking outside is particularly good when you’re feeling stressed, as it is gentle on the body and calming for the mind. Pop on your favourite podcast or playlist and hit the pavement!
Avoid stress eating with nutritious choices
A great first step is to keep the pantry and desk drawer stocked with nutritious snacks so that it’s easier to reach for a piece of fruit rather than a chocolate bar. Making these kinds of swaps is an easy way to reduce your calorie intake over the day. Try to choose foods that are high in protein, fruits and vegetables, as these are going to help you to feel fuller and manage your increased appetite caused by stress.
Plan in advance
It’s hard to change your behaviour when you’re feeling stressed. Therefore, making a plan in advance for the next time you feel stressed can help you to feel prepared. Think of a few activities that you can try to manage your stress that don’t involve having something to eat, for example, having a bath, calling a friend, writing in a journal, reading a book. Write these into a plan: If I feel stressed, then I will… and write down the activities that you are going to try. Then when you’re feeling stressed, you’ve got your plan ready to go!
Drinking more water will help too. Often, the mind doesn’t know the difference between thirst and hunger; when you’re in a stressed phase, make it a habit to always have a bottle of water at hand and build the association between feeling stressed and sipping water.
Address the root cause: reduce your stress
Try to practice proven stress-relief methods like meditation, mindfulness, yoga, breathing exercises, and so on. These practices can reduce your cortisol levels, helping you reduce your overall stress levels, which will hopefully prevent stress eating and weight gain.
What are you going to try next time you are feeling stressed?