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.
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.
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.