Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

Did you know that stress is the basic cause of 60% of all human illness and disease?1 Whether it be job pressures, finances, or health, stress seems to be a common part of American life in the 21st century.  Unfortunately, stress can also be a major foe during your weight loss efforts.

What is stress?

There are different types of stress, but here’s what basically happens in your body: When the brain recognizes a threat, or “stressor” (whether this be a snake encounter, credit-card debt or work-related stress), it tells the body to go into “survival mode” by releasing several hormones.

First, adrenaline gives us the instant, fight or flight, boost of energy.  CRH (corticotrophin releasing hormone) is also released and helps adrenaline reduce your appetite, but only for a brief moment. Then there’s cortisol, also known as the “stress-hormone.” Cortisol’s job is to help us replenish our body after the stress has passed—so it increases our appetite. Unfortunately, cortisol stays in the body for longer than the other hormones, ultimately driving you to eat more.

Think back on past stressful events–did you snack or eat more often than not?  It wouldn’t be so bad if during these binge moments you reached for carrots and hummus–but most people don’t.

During stressful moments you typically want the high-calorie, comfort foods instead: pizza, fries, ice cream, etc. Eating becomes the way to “relieve” the stress, which often results in weight-gain.

Stress and Weight

There’s definitely a connection between stress and weight gain, or even just the inability to lose weight. If you’ve been trying to lose weight–consistently eating healthy meals, partaking in challenging workouts yet seeing no decrease in weight–stress may be the problem.

Do some self-reflecting and figure out if you are experience stress in your life.  If you don’t think you’re stressed–then one possibility is that you’re gaining lean muscle mass and displacing fat mass. An easy way to figure this out by the way your clothes are fitting with time. Have your jeans loosened up around the waist?

If you are experiencing some level of stress in your life, it may be both difficult and frustrating to try to lose weight at this time. Figure out what the root of the stress is and try to get a handle on that first.

Ways to Reduce Stress

Stress-management is crucial for successful weight loss. Here are a few basic techniques to try2:

  1. Exercise is a great stress buster, but too much of it can actually raise cortisol levels. The key is to do something you enjoy and for an amount of time that doesn’t exhaust you.
  2. Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep causes stress, and it also causes abnormal hormone cycles. When we don’t sleep enough, we tend to be hungrier and less satisfied from the food we eat.
  3. Relax or Meditate. Take time out of each day to do something calming/soothing. Yoga works for many, but it could be something as simple as deep breathing or reading a good book.
  4. Eat a balanced, healthy diet. This is easier said than done, but eating a variety of protein, whole grains, fruit & vegetables helps to keep blood sugar regulated on top of providing the body with essential nutrients for normal functioning.



  1. The American Institute of Stress. Available at:
  2. Bouchez C. Can stress cause weight gain? WebMD. 2005. Available at:


By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian

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