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The link between stress and weight

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Convinced that your weight fluctuates when you’re under pressure? You’re probably not imagining it . Discover the link between your stress levels and your weight – and learn what you can do about it.

Stress and weight

It’s no secret that food can affect your mood, but it turns out the opposite is also true. 

Your mood – and specifically your stress levels – can impact how you feel about food. 
In fact, not just how you feel about it, but how much and what kinds you want to eat too. The knock-on effect? Stress can genuinely affect your weight. 

A US study found that of the 67 per cent of study participants whose weight changed due to stress, 55 per cent gained weight and 12 per cent lost weight. 

The question is why?

Here’s 3 need-to-know facts.

1. Stress triggers a hormonal reaction

And it’s this that can cause both weight loss and weight gain.

When it first hits, stress causes adrenaline levels to rise, which triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. 

The side-effect of this is that appetite tends to plummet . For most people, this is a temporary situation. But other people remain stuck in this mode long term, so that lack of appetite leads to weight loss .  

A more common pattern, however, is that, as stress levels persist, rather than staying in fight-or-flight mode, the body starts to release another hormone called cortisol – and cortisol bumps appetite up . 

It may be one explanation why at least two out of three people agree that they use eating as a stress-management strategy . 

Put simply, stress can make you physically hungrier. 

2. Stress makes us gravitate towards specific foods, too

When we eat because we’re stressed, it’s not usually carrot sticks that are on the menu, right? It turns out there’s a scientific reason for that. 

Research shows that stress makes higher-fat, higher-sugar foods more appealing and this is because of the way they help our bodies respond to stress. 

A US study revealed how comfort foods help to suppress the release of cortisol, so that eating them is essentially our body’s way of self-medicating when it’s stressed.

3. Stress can also influence where the weight appears

Elevated cortisol levels have another impact, too – research shows that they can also affect fat distribution, making it more likely to gather centrally around the waist for some people.

And it’s that variety that’s considered to be a greater health risk than fat stored elsewhere on the body .

Gain or lose, the solution is stressing less

Research continues to prove this, too, with a few different studies showing how stress-management interventions even have a role to play in successful weight loss . 

To take control of your stress levels, try:
  • Identifying your triggers

    Understanding how stressed you are, as well as which situations, circumstances and events tend to make you feel stressed, may help. It’s also a good idea to recognise the difference between situations that you can and can’t control
  • Doing some regular exercise

    It’s a research-backed stress relief strategy. Aim for at least 20 minutes at a time of something that makes you feel puffed out afterwards
  • Getting a good night’s sleep

    When you’re tired, your reactions and responses to stressful situations are likely to be heightened
  • Eating a nutritious diet

    A nutritious diet is important for helping your body cope well. Plus, some foods can even help you to stress less
Keen to do more? Sign up for our ‘3 days to stress less' action plan.