WEIGHT MANAGEMENT ∙ 3 minutes read

Is stress causing you to gain weight?

By Numan Editorial | Medically reviewed by Dr Jaskirt Matharu

Traffic jams. Looming work deadlines. Heated arguments at home. Each day, we all have to deal with fist-clenching, heart-pounding situations – stress is an inescapable part of life.

If you often feel stressed, you’re in good company. A massive 74% of people in the UK report feeling so stressed that they’ve been overwhelmed or unable to cope. This isn’t just important because of the effects on mental health – stress affects our physical health too. And one of those physical effects can be weight gain.

By now, the link between stress and overeating isn’t exactly a secret. It’s where we get the phrase “stress eating”. But why can stress hijack our behaviour in this way?

We take a look at the science behind stress and weight gain, along with practical ways to tackle the issue.

Doesn’t stress lead to weight loss?

Before diving in, doesn’t stress make us lose the pounds – not put them on? After all, the NHS lists stress as a possible factor in unintended weight loss.

There’s a definite connection between stress and appetite, but that connection isn’t the same for everyone.

Stress causes some of us to ignore hunger cues and refrain from eating. In particular, it's short-term “acute” stress that tends to shut down our appetite. In acute stress, our nervous system tells our adrenal glands to pump out adrenaline, the main hormone in the “fight-or-flight” response. Aside from triggering us to tense up, adrenaline can also speed up our metabolism.

But when we’re stressed over long periods, sometimes the problem is just the reverse.

How does stress cause weight gain?

It’s mainly long-term, “chronic” stress that pushes us to seek high-fat, sugary foods. Once ingested, these foods dampen our emotions. It’s also proven that sweet foods are more appealing when we’re under stress compared to when we’re not. We then link these “comfort foods” to emotional relief, paving the way for future cravings and weight gain.

But not everyone's susceptible. This vicious cycle usually takes hold in people more sensitive to the effects of cortisol, the chief hormone in chronic stress. One British study found that in response to “daily hassles”, people who react strongly to cortisol are more tempted by snacks.

For others, however, stress causes weight gain indirectly. For example, it might lead you to neglect sleep or exercise – both vital habits for keeping your weight down.

And for those partial to a drink in stressful times, it’s worth remembering how calorific alcohol is. Just one pint of 5% strength beer comes with 239 calories – the same as a Mars Bar.

How to stop gaining weight from stress

Perhaps you’re now wondering how to curb stress-induced cravings. There’s no single answer, but it’s generally a good move to prevent stress in the first place. The more relaxed you feel, the more in control you’ll be when it’s crunch time.

That said, here are four tried and tested stress-busting activities to explore:

  • Connection. Carve out time to be with friends, family, and anyone supportive – you don’t have to deal with your stress alone.
  • Talking therapy. Even if you don’t struggle with clinical anxiety, depression, or an eating disorder, try hiring a dedicated ear to work through your woes.
  • Exercise. Whether it’s yoga, swimming, or walking, some form of movement can have a noticeable impact on your stress.
  • Meditation. Not only does meditation calm you down, it also tunes you into cravings and makes you more aware of when it's time to stop eating.

When it comes to these activities, you don’t have to do them all at once. Avoid perfectionism by starting slow with the most relevant area, and commit to making a consistent effort.

The Numan take

Feeling stress is part of being human, and for many, it triggers overeating as an attempt to get turbulent emotions under control. But if your goal is to eliminate this habit, or lose weight, you need to master your relationship with stress. Find ways to stay cool and collected, and your weight loss journey will go much smoother.