Can stress make you gain weight

Yes stress can make you gain weight. However it can make you lose weight too. It depends on the type of stress, acute stress can lead to weight loss while chronic stress can lead to weight gain. The main mechanism for stress related weight gain appears in the formation of a comfort eating habit that gets hard wired into your brain.
Stress increases the release of glucocorticoids (stress hormones) such as cortisol, which increase motivation for food and insulin, which promotes food intake and obesity. This increase in hunger leads to comfort eating, which clams you down, and the stress is relieved. Not only this but when we comfort eat research shows that we go for the wrong calorie dense foods high in sugar and fat also when these foods are available we eat more of them than we normally would. If this cycle of chronic stress and relief from comfort eating is repeated we form a negative habit. A formed subconscious habit to comfort eat. But stress does not affect everyone the same.
Some people eat more when stressed and others eat less. Whether you eat more or less due to stress is determined by your gender, weight, the type of stress and if you have learned to comfort eat:
  • It appears chronic stress leads to eating more due to comfort eating and elevated insulin and cortisol levels. While acute stress leads to eating less due to fight or flight stress responses as you divert resources to avoiding the chasing lion and adrenalin reduces your appetite.
  • If you are over weight to begin with you are likely to gain more stress related weight than leaner counterparts placed under the same stress.
  • Men and women stress over different things. They also prefer different comfort foods with women going for the three C's chips, chocolate and candy (plus ice cream) and men going for pizza, soups and stews.
  • If you have learned to comfort eat you may have also learned to go into auto pilot and go for high sugar and fat foods. While some people may have better stress coping mechanisms and have not learned to comfort eat and hence eat less or the same when stressed, avoiding the weight gain.
If you relieve an occasional intense feeling of stress by eating something pleasurable it does not cause weight gain; however, habitual relief of life's discomforts using comfort eating will inevitably lead to weight gain. Stress and life's circumstances can affect your weight but your genes also can affect your weight.
From twin studies some researchers quote that genetics make up 70-77% of your predisposition to gain weight and that only 30% is your environment. However it is not that clear cut. You may have the genes that predispose you to gaining weight but it is still your environment that provides the resources to gain weight, you are not destined to gain weight if you control these. Also our genes have not changed in the last 20 years but our levels of obesity have dramatically and they are still rising. Many people change their lives for the better everyday and lose weight, but to achieve this we need to manage our stress related eating.
If you have trained your brain to comfort eat due to chronic stress you can retrain it to be more aware of stress and to become solution focused versus using the formed habit of comfort eating. Your brain has "plasticity" that can be reversed; with meditation and mindfulness exercises you can retrain your brain to avoid comfort eating.
Exercise is another great way not only to reduce stress triggered comfort eating, it also allows you to burn calories while de-stressing and rewiring your metabolismand avoiding stress hormones which hotwire your metabolism for weight gain.Together exercise and programs promoting learned increases in the use of your executive brain during periods of stress could reduce stress induced eating and resultant weight gain.
Duncan Hunter is a nutritionist and dietitian with a passion for dispelling the myths and guiding people to meal plans that are healthy, tasty and easy. Whether it's 1kg or 50kg he has helped hundreds of individuals reach their goal. He can help you with personal guidance and a personalised plan that takes YOU into account. To learn more please go to www.duncanhunter.com.au
Mary F. Dallman "syress induced obesity and the emotional nervous system." Trends EndocrinolMetab. 2010 Mar;21(3):159-65
Jane Wardle, Susan Carnell, Claire MA Haworth and Robert Plomin. "Evidence for a strong genetic influence on childhood adiposity despite the force of the obesogenic environment." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 2008 Vol. 87, No. 2, 398-404,
Albert J. Stunkard, M.D., Jennifer R. Harris, Ph.D., Nancy L. Pedersen, Ph.D., and Gerald E. McClearn, Ph.D. "The Body-Mass Index of Twins Who Have Been Reared Apart." N Engl J Med 1990; 322:1483-1487.
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