Could stress be making you fat

Could stress be making you fat?

As thoughts turn to summer many of us will be aiming to lose a few pounds we've put on over the winter months.

We often look at our diet and levels of exercise when aiming to lose weight but rarely look at other factors like stress or our work, rest and sleep patterns.

In long term, when it comes to losing excess weight and body fat, these are areas just as important as diet. If diet and exercise changes alone don’t get results it may be time to ask, “could stress be stopping me losing weight?”

Stress and weight gain

Prolonged, high levels of stress can lead to hormonal imbalances, ruining our attempts at achieving a healthy lifestyle and losing weight.

It can interfere with our appetites, increase fat storage (especially around our waist), and decrease our willpower when trying to stick to a healthy lifestyle.

4 reasons why stress leads to weight gain

Hormones and the “fight or flight” response

Unfortunately, our bodies still work as they did in cave man days. When our brain senses a “threat” – e.g. an unexpected increase in work load, or a higher than average bill, it treats it as if it was a sabre tooth tiger, triggering a release of chemicals including the “flight or fight” hormones adrenaline, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), and cortisol.

In the short term this hormonal response makes us alert and ready for action. Adrenaline diverts the blood flow away from internal organs to our muscles, preparing the body to run from, or fight the threat.

Once these adrenaline effects wear off, cortisol, the “stress hormone”, remains in the system, stimulating the body to eat to replenish it's long term food supply, fat, just as if it had fought or ran from the threat.

Mid-section Fat storage

In cave man days our bodies evolved to store fat for long periods to take us through times of famine and to eat high fat foods after "flight or fight" responses to threat. This is not helpful today. Chronic stress bought about by work, families and modern day pressures build “visceral fat” around our bellies but unlike the cave men we don't have periods of low food supplies - or the need to run from sabre tooth tigers.

Our bellies have a good blood supply and ample cortisol receptors, encouraging the body to store fat there. The problem for us is that excess fat around our belly is bad for our health, leading to conditions like heart disease or diabetes. Bellies are also the area of the body where it is most difficult to lose fat. 

We often beat ourselves up about our appearance and failure to lose excess belly-fat, leading to more stress and the cycle starting again.

Anxiety and its effect on eating

Adrenaline is released as part of the flight or fight stress response. It causes us to become fidgety and alert, ready for anything. Although we can burn off some calories fidgeting or doing things because we can’t be still, anxiety can lead to over-eating and emotional eating. Stress makes us reach for the highest fat/sugar "unhealthy foods" - we almost instinctively reach for chocolate or crisps as a way of helping us calm down.

We often eat quickly and mindlessly as the anxious thoughts in our heads distract us from the amount we are eating. It requires a lot of discipline and an awareness of our actions to beat the effect of anxiety on our eating habits.

Lack of sleep

Stress is one of the leading causes of insomnia. Lying awake at night worrying about work tomorrow, or if the kids got their homework in on time means our minds don’t switch off. Staying up into the early hours to work leads to a loss of sleep, and this can disrupt our appetite the next day. Sleep influences weight gain and loss of sleep loss disrupts the functioning of ghrelin and leptin, the appetite control hormones.

To makes matters worse, tired bodies crave carbohydrates for energy while lack of sleep decreases willpower and ability to resist cravings, leading to over-eating and diet sabotage. Coffee or caffeinated drinks to stay focused often disrupts the sleep cycle too - creating a vicious circle that contributes to weight gain.

4 tips to help to stop stress ruining healthy lifestyles


Everyone knows exercise is good for relieving stress and burning calories. It also decreases cortisol levels in the blood, leading to the release of hormones that relieve pain and improve mood. Long term, exercise increases muscle mass and raises your metabolic rate.

Exercise doesn't need to involve extreme activity. All exercise (when performed with correct technique) is good for the body, and doing something you enjoy such as Pilates, dancing, running or even walking the dog will aid the mood-boosting and stress busting effects of the exercise.

Learn to eat slowly and mindfully

Learning to eat consciously can limit the effects of stress and anxiety on your eating habits. Slowing down and enjoying the taste, texture and smell of food makes eating a more enjoyable experience. Taking time over food helps us recognise when we are full. Tricks like putting down cutlery between mouthfuls, or chewing and following a mouthful of food before cutting another can help cut down the size of meals.

Have fun and reward yourself (without using food)

Reading, walking the dog, doing Pilates or having a long relaxing bath are all ways of feeling good and relieving stress without causing weight gain. It's easy to forget to make time for ourselves when dealing with looming deadlines, or the school run, but taking time for yourself is important. “You time” gives us the chance to feel refreshed, think more clearly, and feel good, and less likely to over-eat as a coping response to stress and negative feelings.


Writing has several beneficial effects for stress prevention and weight loss. Writing down feelings, goals or reasons to be thankful keeps hands and mind busy and less likely to be tempted by food as a coping mechanism to stress.

Writing down healthy eating and exercise targets and listing the “whys” – the reasons for having these goals and changing lifestyles can increase commitment towards new healthy behaviours.

Writing down feelings can give insight into what is creating stress. For example, it can help uncover hidden feelings, patterns of thinking, and the expectations we put on ourselves and others, all factors that can lead to disappointment and more stress.

Being aware of these thoughts, expectations and patterns of thinking, can help change them helping reduce stress levels without having to drastically change work or life routines.

About the Author

Claire Gurney (BSc) is a Pilates instructor specialising in Pilates for beginners, older adults and injury prevention. Claire teaches weekly classes at treat Norwich, in Acle and Mattishall, and runs Pilates workshops and retreats throughout the year

Claire is a qualified cancer rehabilitation instructor and leads “feel good fitness” classes in Hethersett, bringing health, happiness and a sense of support to those affected by cancer.

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