The Connection Between Weight and Stress
Heart racing. Palms sweating. You know stress when you feel it. Stress is, well, stressful. But could it be keeping you from your weight loss goals? Experiencing everyday low-level stress—like what you may experience with relationships, family, or work—can trigger hunger cues and lead you to eat more. Here’s why.
Fight or Flight: Understanding the Stress Response
The “fight or flight” response is your body’s natural response to stress. Even when you aren’t in any physical danger, your body’s defense mechanisms will still kick on—it can’t tell the difference between running into a mountain lion or your boss before a work deadline. To help you “escape” the stressor, your body will release molecules including adrenaline (which increases your heart rate) and cortisol (also known as the stress hormone).
The science of how stress and cortisol affect your body is complex, but here is the short story: the cortisol released by a short-term stressor can lead someone to eat more, as their body works to ensure it will be prepared to escape the perceived danger (aka the scary work deadline). And if the stress sticks around (like maybe it turns out your job is just this hectic all the time), then cortisol can stay high, and you stay hungry. Cue the “stress eating.”
The Other Sides of Stress
Let’s be real—no one stress eats broccoli. Stress eating seems to be correlated with consuming high-sugar and high-fat foods. Eating too many of these calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods can, of course, lead you to gain weight. Plus, if you’re experiencing more stress, you may be more likely to sleep worse and consequently less likely you are to exercise.
There are also the emotional side effects of stress eating you may experience, such as feeling out of control or spiraling into emotional or binge eating. This may impact your mental health and reverberate to impact your weight loss goals.
Tips to Manage Stress for Weight Loss
When you hear all of this, it can be hard to think of your body as self-sabotaging your weight loss goals through stress reactions. But everything your body does as a response to stress is to defend and take care of you. The key to taking back control is to manage stress and prioritize self-care:
- Move your body: it’s not just great for burning calories—working out or any sustained physical movement (like dancing!) is a classic way for your body to burn through stress. Starting your day with some cardio can set your body up to handle stress later.
- Practice mindful eating: It can be hard in the moment to register why you’re reaching for that bag of chips but taking a moment to slow down can give you the space your brain needs to recognize what is actually going on. Some people find that a food journal can help them better understand exactly what they’re putting in their stomachs.
- Sleep more: Being sleep-deprived can be a one-way ticket to stress itself, but not getting enough sleep can also lead to eating more or choosing less-healthy foods.
- Calm your brain: Whether you are drawn to meditating, journaling, or finding peace by going for a walk outside, discovering which healthy stress responses work for you can help you wind down your body’s stress response.
Part of the journey to a healthier lifestyle is learning about your body. Understanding why you feel stressed and how you can best manage it is key to improving both your physical and your mental health.