Stress And Weight Gain

If you’ve been stressed for any period of time you may have noticed some weight gain. Or the case may be that it was somewhat harder to maintain your weight. But why, exactly, is stress a problem? We might eat more and exercise less, but is that all there is to it? And what are the underlying reasons? Thankfully we have some insights into this from researchers at UCLA in the US which showed why stress and obesity are so closely related.

How Stress Can Lead To Weight Gain

The following graphic is adapted from their review. The idea is that stress can affect numerous systems that are involved in weight control. Follow all the little arrows and you see that these aren’t isolated effects and that each one actually creates a feedback loop or a continuous cycle.

Zoomable figure

Cognition – Stress can mess with your mental skills like thinking, planning, and organizing, as well as the ability to focus and manage your emotions.

Behaviours – Stress can influence eating, physical activity and sleep behaviours. Each of those can also affect one another.

Physiology – When stress hormones are higher they can make you want to eat more food or tell your body to store more fat. Stress increases your appetite for more feel good chemicals like dopamine. This in turn makes you want to eat really tasty foods (like the ones with a perfect mix of sugar and fat, ice cream or donuts for example).

Biochemistry – Stress may also influence blood chemicals related to weight control like leptin, grehlin and neuropeptide Y. These are responsible for suppressing hunger and appetite (leptin and neuropeptide Y) , stimulating hunger and appetite (grehlin) and stimulating fat storage (neuropeptide Y).

How Obesity Can Lead To Stress

With the addition of weight stigma we get another feedback loop and the vicious cycle goes on and on.

Zoomable figure

Eating advice and nutrition plans can only go so far. The topic we’ve covered here shows that there’s often much more going on than the bare foods we eat. Getting the right amount of proteins, carbs or fats is almost made irrelevant if stress has its way with someone’s appetite, emotions and behaviours.

What Can You Do To Manage Stress?

While I can tell you that meditation has never been my thing, it has worked for many others. You could also de-stress by spending more time outside or in nature. Go for a walk with your partner, a friend or your dog. Schedule a weekly massage. Block off time for a hobby you enjoy. Listen to some relaxing music. Find what works for you and do it more often. When you get better at managing or reducing stress it might then allow you to make better food choices. Or eat appropriate portion sizes and amounts. You could get more deep sleep and be more physically active.

Many people might not even think of stress as something that’s stopping their progress. Instead they may be racking their brains thinking it’s something about their food or training. This is why having a coach who has done and seen all this before with tons of people could be beneficial to you. Someone who has all the answers to questions you haven’t even thought of yet. Get in touch if you want to make real progress and see a better version of yourself, mentally and physically.



Tomiyama AJ. Stress and Obesity. Annu Rev Psychol. 2019 Jan 4;70:703–18.

Stepping On The Scales

What Do You Think When You Weigh Yourself?

Do you compare your weight to a previous weigh in or what you’d like to weigh? Maybe you wonder what you did to make the scales go up or down? Have you ever made an action plan after seeing your weight? University of Oxford scientists decided to find out what went through peoples’ minds when they weigh themselves. With this information they could see what thoughts might be helpful for weight loss.

Study participants weighed themselves every single morning for eight weeks. During and after every weigh in they were to think aloud, audio recording or writing their thoughts in a journal. This was to capture their thoughts in real time and in their normal environment.

What The Study Found

Zoomable figure

As you can see, 90% compared their weight to a previous or goal weight, but hardly ever made a specific action plan. As it turned out, the only behaviour that actually helped weight loss was making a specific action plan. The study also gave a few interesting insights. These may or may not be familiar to you.

Weighing each day gave feelings of happiness, shame, frustration or guilt depending on the numbers. The daily weigh-in made participants think about what behaviours led them to that weight but didn’t spur them to make a specific action plan. However, it was noted in the study that some people said their results influenced their actions for the rest of that day. Some participants were left baffled by the results as they couldn’t make sense of the weight fluctuations day to day. It was often frustrating as they would eat well one day but then see the scale being higher the next. Half of the participants said they liked being weighed daily as it helped them keep track. The other half thought daily weighing was too frequent but would do it weekly to see the trending of weight loss or gain.

Hate It Or Love It

For some people weighing themselves can be helpful and motivating. Others may find it demoralizing or frustrating. My advice would be to use it if you can do so without getting emotionally hung up on the results. That goes both ways. If you feel absolutely delighted when you see a positive change but feel terrible with a negative change just don’t do it. There are healthier ways to measure progress than putting yourself through that emotional roller coaster.

If you’re someone who can use weighing as a helpful but objective tool try and make a specific action plan when you do. If you dislike using the scales try this instead. Measure your progress by improving your behaviours. It could be improving your water intake up to at least 2 litres. Adding more protein to more meals. Including more vegetables in your daily nutrition. When your behaviours improve like this the weight loss will happen as a consequence. You won’t need the scales to show you.

Should You Use Ice To Recover From Training?

More often than not people will say “Absolutely, you need to control any swelling and it helps with numbing the pain!”. You’ve possibly said this yourself just now. Maybe you’ve been in a situation where you used a bag of peas from the freezer on a twisted ankle. If not for yourself you may have suggested an ice pack when someone got a bang or has sore muscles from training. Ice baths have been widely used by sports teams and athletes all over the world to aid in recovery from tough sessions. That’s what almost everyone thinks, but are they right? Does icing speed up recovery from minor injury or training? Should you use an ice pack next time you have a slight muscle strain or ligament sprain?


Let me explain why you shouldn’t bother. Dr. Gabe Mirkin is the man who first made the acronym RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) in his 1978 book “The Sportsmedicine Book”. For years it has been the go-to treatment for injuries and to help people recover from injury/training. However, in 2014 the very same man said that ice may delay healing instead of helping it. You can look for yourself here.

What happens when you get an injury? The injured area becomes inflamed or swollen. It might feel hotter or may even have some bruising. That inflammatory response is your body’s first stage in healing itself. Histamine is released causing swelling. Things called macrophages go into the injured site to fight any nasties that are there and growth factors are recruited. These growth factors stimulate a bunch of other good cells with fancy names to come in and start rebuilding the things that were injured/damaged. For this to happen optimally we need blood flow to and from the area. BUT when you start icing the area you slow that process down as cold makes our blood vessels constrict. You’re basically stopping the ambulances, fire engines and builders from going in and doing their job.

More Evidence

A study published in 2011 compared people who iced their torn calf muscles versus people who didn’t. The results showed the icing group had just as much pain in their legs after icing. They also didn’t return to work or activities any quicker than the non icing group. A scientific review in 2012 concluded that athletes who iced sore muscles or used ice baths regained strength and power slower than those who didn’t. Finally a study in 2015 found that subjects who used a cold therapy after training experienced less strength, size and endurance than a group who didn’t use cold therapy.

Take Home Message

When it comes to icing sore muscles after training, don’t bother. You’ll slow down your body’s natural recovery and also limit the benefits of that training on strength, muscle size and endurance. The same goes for anti-inflammatory medications if you’re using them post training. If you’re incredibly sore from training you could try some gentle exercise like walking to get some blood flow around the affected muscles. Or you could train smarter and not get to the point of being in incredible pain in the first place. Stimulate your muscles, don’t annihilate them!


Eat Slowly and Until 80% Full

Do You Eat Too Quickly?

It takes 20 minutes for fullness cues to be sent around our bodies. That is the time it takes your stomach to send a signal to your brain and come back again to say you’re full. It’s in those 20 minutes that someone can overeat. Speaking to clients and gym members over the years, eating too quickly is one of the things that comes up a lot. The good news is it’s also something that be worked on without actually changing your diet. This is the reason it’s one of the first habits I coach clients. Even when someone says “I eat healthily” they can still overeat if they eat too quickly. It can still happen with good quality foods. If I scoff down huge amounts of the best foods the chances are that I’ll still eat too many calories. The food may be highly nutritious but if I’m looking to burn some fat it just won’t work. Now imagine if my food choices weren’t great, the surplus calories would reach a huge total. Which leads to today’s point of interest.

Slow Down

Part of my coaching is to allow you to eat your favourite foods but to improve your habits. I want to add better things in and not cut things out. This goes in the face of every diet you see on social media or TV. You know the ones where you cut out carbs, lose a ton of weight, regain the weight and learn nothing. I’m not a fan of “everything in moderation” either. Your idea of moderation will be different to mine and the next person’s and the next’s etc. Instead of cutting things out and being restrictive I want to coach someone healthier habits for their goals, how much to eat and why. The first part of that is eating slowly.

Let’s say your diet is absolutely dreadful and includes high calorie meals full of sugar and fat. Not only that but you eat really fast. In the time it takes your brain to send the ‘I’m full’ signal to your stomach you would consume tons of excess calories. If you just slowed down you would eat a lot less and consume fewer calories in that 20 minute window. You haven’t changed the food but you’ve saved yourself from more damage.

Here are some tips to do it;

  • Take smaller bites
  • Chew a little longer
  • Try to taste the food more
  • Have a drink between bites
  • Chat with whoever you’re eating with

You’ll be surprised how much more you’ll enjoy your meal. Once you’ve slowed down a little you can then move on to the next habit.

Eat Until 80% Full

Think of this as eating until you’re no longer hungry. You don’t have to stuff yourself with each meal. We don’t live on a deserted island not knowing when we’ll get food again. Gratefully the majority of us have food readily available for our next meal and you don’t need to hit your daily calorie numbers in one sitting. Most people have a problem with leaving food behind so they clear the plate. This becomes a problem when portion control isn’t great and so most of us finish a meal feeling stuffed. Before you learn better portion control, eating until 80% full or until no longer hungry helps with this problem. A good gauge of having eaten the right amount is that you shouldn’t feel hungry, you should feel energised and able to get up and move around easily or go for a walk. If you feel sluggish, heavy or need to sit down after eating you’ve probably overdone it!

Something For You To Try

After a typical meal of yours note how you feel immediately after finishing and each hour until your next meal. If you’ve eaten the correct amount for your fat loss goals it should resemble something like this;

Immediately after – Not hungry at all or like you could have eaten a little more.

1 hour after – Fully satisfied with no desire to eat another meal.

2 hours after – Maybe a little hungry but by no means an overwhelming need to eat.

3 hours after – You should be feeling the need to eat again. A 7 or 8 out of 10 for hunger. This could be more or less depending on any physical activity you might have done. If you’re not hungry now you probably ate too much at that previous meal.

4 hours after – You are now at an 8 or 9 out of 10 for hunger. Objects are turning into different foods like that lion sees in the Madagascar animated movie. It’s around this time that if we let our hunger get this far we’re more likely to make poor food choices.

Take Home Message

Eating slowly and until 80% full might take some getting used to. If you’re serious about changing your health and fitness for the better it really is worth giving a go for a couple weeks. It will help improve digestion, your training performance should be better and you’ll enjoy your meals more. And it’s not even restrictive. Hope this helps!

Glycemic Index and Load

Often when people begin to look at their nutrition more closely they come across glycemic index and glycemic load. They hear or read that you need to make sure to eat foods that are low on both scales and avoid everything else. But as you’ll see in the next few paragraphs they’re not quite the same and the numbers for both can be conflicting.

What Are They?

The glycemic index (GI) gives a food a score on a scale of 0-100 for how quickly it is digested and released as sugar into the blood stream. Pure glucose (sugar) is given a score of 100. Lower GI foods cause your blood sugar to rise at a slower rate after eating that food. Higher GI foods cause the blood sugar to rise quicker. Glycemic load (GL) gives a more accurate assessment of how a food will impact your blood sugar levels. It does this on a ranking scale also but it measures the amount of carbohydrates in a serving of a particular food. Foods with a low GL rank from 0-10 and have very little impact on your blood sugar. A GL between 10-20 will have a moderate impact and a high GL over 20 can cause a sugar spike.

Watermelon As An Example

Watermelon is a very good example of a carbohydrate with a high glycemic index of over 70 but a low glycemic load under 10. The GI is high because it’s based on lots of watermelon but an actual serving of it has a GL of just 7. This is because watermelon is mostly water! Lower GI and GL foods tend to have more fiber and nutrients in them and help keep our energy levels more balanced throughout the day.

Insulin Release

You can still get a blood sugar spike from eating a lot of a low or moderate GL food however and so it’s also important to know the correct amounts to eat. When your blood sugar rises dramatically your body releases insulin to bring it back down. When this happens too frequently it can lead to insulin resistance and in some cases type 2 diabetes. There are many things that have an influence on your absorption of sugar from foods and their reaction on insulin release.

These things include;

  • Your fitness level
  • Amount of body fat you have
  • Genetics
  • Gut health
  • Amount of muscle you have
  • Whether you’ve trained recently, how hard and how long you trained
  • The time of day
  • What else you ate in a particular meal

The Take Home Message

Taking all of this into consideration I feel using the GI or GL is kind of over complicating things. If you want to improve your health and fitness just focus on doing the basics well and consistently. Eat mostly minimally processed foods that are higher in nutrients. Make sure you’re getting enough protein and vegetables. Exercise consistently and aim to improve your strength or fitness levels. When you can get more/improve sleep, do so. Give yourself a break now and then to try and manage stress. Keep things simple and enjoy the process without complicating things.