The surprising ways chronic stress can make it hard to control your weight


4 minutes

Let’s face it, some amount of stress is unavoidable. Because: life. But if you constantly feel frazzled, cranky, anxious, tired, or depressed, well, that’s next-level stress. And that kind of pressure can cause weight gain that seems to come out of nowhere. 
There are many things that can lead to excess pounds, and recent studies have shown that stress is one of them. Highly processed sugary and salty foods and inactivity are often blamed for the obesity epidemic. And yes, they’re definitely a factor. But research has also put a spotlight on another factor. You guessed it: chronic stress.
How? Stress affects your appetite, metabolism, and other bodily processes. Keep reading to learn more—and for ways to manage all that pressure. (Deep breaths, everyone!)
The link between stress and unhealthy habits
When you’re stressed over a tight schedule or a jam-packed to-do list, healthy choices often give way to less-than-ideal options that lead to weight gain. Those prone to emotional eating may find themselves reaching for more sugary or high fat snacks. Others might turn to fast food to save time on a crazy-busy day. And we get it. The idea of turning on the stove and cooking a healthy meal when you’ve got a million other things going on is a real challenge. 
Stress-induced weight gain can create a feedback loop, as well. For example, if you’re anxious about a lack of progress with your weight care goals, negative feelings might make you reach for extra food, which could in turn stress you out, and…you get the idea.
“The slogan for Mars Inc.’s chocolate candy bar, “‘Milky Way: comfort in every bar,’” describes the phenomenon in which individuals eat to comfort their stress-related negative emotions. Individuals can eat more or eat differently under stress, with most gravitating toward palatable foods that are high in sugar, fat, and calories (Adam & Epel 2007, Torres & Nowson 2007),” a 2018 article in the Annual Review of Psychology explained.
The science behind stress weight gain
So we’ve talked about the emotional side of stress and weight. But there’s a physiological one, too. When you experience stress, your adrenal glands produce more of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This triggers a “fight-or-flight response”—a burst of energy and strength (and increased appetite, BTW) that helped us survive in the days when we needed to run from saber-toothed tigers. It’s a perfectly natural response and your hormones return to normal once the threat is gone. 
But chronic stress releases these hormones continuously, which can wreak havoc on your body. And these changes can cause a slow down in your metabolism. We all know that a slower metabolism burns fewer calories. So that can make it easier to gain weight, even if you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet.
Insulin also plays a role. Cortisol causes an increase in blood sugar levels, and the rise in blood glucose means the body needs to pump out more insulin. However, too much insulin for too long leads to insulin resistance (when your body struggles to process blood sugars), and your blood sugar levels go up. Those extra sugars are stored in fat cells, causing weight gain.
What’s more, high cortisol levels can cause fat to be deposited in the stomach area. This belly fat— also known as visceral fat—has more cells per mass unit than other fat tissue. And these fat cells contain more cortisol receptors, so excess fat is more likely to be stored in the abdomen at a higher rate than elsewhere in the body. Here’s why that matters: Visceral fat is linked to conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Identifying stress
Sometimes, stress manifests itself with different emotions or even with physical ailments. So it’s important to identify the signs. They may include:
  • Muscle tension
  • Anger or irritability 
  • Mood swings
  • Headaches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Depression
  • Use of drugs and alcohol as a coping method
  • Fatigue
  • Losing focus or motivation
On its own, a symptom may not indicate stress. But if several of them hang on for a while, it’s time to address your stress. 
Ways to manage stress
There’s no magic wand that will completely eliminate stress from your life. (Sorry.) And again, some amount of it is totally fine. But if you’re chronically stressed, these suggestions can help you manage it while supporting your health and weight care journey.

Rest up

Did you know that sleep and weight loss are correlated? When you’re stressed about due dates, getting some quality Zzzs can seem counterproductive. But a good night’s sleep will leave you feeling recharged and ready to tackle anything. It also helps regulate hunger hormones, so you’re less likely to overeat and are more apt to choose healthier foods. (Lack of sleep has the opposite effect.)  


Meditation is the practice of focusing awareness and attention. It can be guided or self-led. Either way, a short meditation session can help you clear your mind and leave you feeling renewed. Other potential benefits include anxiety management, decreased blood pressure, and improved cardiovascular health.


Stress can make physical activity seem like the last thing you want to do. The pull of Netflix is bound to trump the idea of pulling on workout clothes and going for a jog. But getting your body moving is known to increase levels of feel-good endorphins that alleviate stress. Even activities like gardening or taking a walk around the neighborhood can make a huge difference in stress levels. You can do it! 


There’s nothing like happiness to alleviate stress symptoms. And that’s where your friends and family come in. Socializing with people that lift your spirits is a terrific way to combat stress. Research shows that positive feelings are linked to a dip in cortisol levels. So, surround yourself with people that make you think positively and watch your stress melt away.
The importance of stress-management
While a stress-free life isn’t likely, taking the time to manage it will help with weight care. Get this: In a two-year study of 45 adults with obesity, the group that took an 8-week stress management program had an average Body Mass Index (BMI) decrease of around 3 points. The control group dropped less than 2 points. Bonus: Those who learned stress management also showed decreased levels of depression and anxiety. 
The best way to avoid stress-induced weight gain is to come up with a holistic plan. That’s where we come in. Found is a lasting weight care program that relies on modern science to help you see results. We put you on the path towards healthy, happy living.
Take a moment today to log your meals, movement, and other dailies in the app to track your progress. It gives you time to reflect, and science shows that self-tracking supports your success.
If you ever find your stress level overwhelming, reach out to a mental health professional for assistance. Here is a list of resources:
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)- helpline: 1-800-950-6264
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - In a crisis? Call or text 988 for 24/7 confidential free crisis counseling
In an emergency or if you or a loved one feels unsafe, call 911 or go to the nearest ER.
Take some time to log your meals, movement, and other dailies in the app to track your progress. It gives you time to reflect, and science shows it supports your success. 
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Behan C. The benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices during times of crisis such as COVID-19. Ir J Psychol Med. 2020 Dec;37(4):256-258. doi: 10.1017/ipm.2020.38. Epub 2020 May 14.
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Xenaki N, Bacopoulou F, Kokkinos A, Nicolaides NC, Chrousos GP, Darviri C. Impact of a stress management program on weight loss, mental health and lifestyle in adults with obesity: a randomized controlled trial. J Mol Biochem. 2018;7(2):78-84. Epub 2018 Oct 3. PMID: 30568922; PMCID: PMC6296480.