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Can Stress Lead to Weight Gain?

Updated on June 11, 2007

YES

The answer is YES- not only is stress damaging emotionally, but it also takes a toll physically, and can lead to weight gain (which in turn only hurts both our emotional and physical health even more!)

There are several ways in which stress can contribute to weight gain:

  • Metabolism: When you're under stress, do you feel like you're prone to putting on more weight, even if you're eating the same amount of food? Too much cortisol can slow your metabolism, causing more weight gain than you would normally experience. This also makes dieting more difficult.
  • Cravings: When you're stressed, do you crave a nice salad, or do you reach for the Ben & Jerry's? People experiencing chronic stress tend to crave more fatty, salty and sugary foods. This includes sweets, processed food and other things that aren't as good for you. These foods are typically less healthy and lead to increased weight gain.
  • Blood Sugar: Prolonged stress can alter your blood sugar levels, causing mood swings, fatigue, and conditions like hyperglycemia. Too much stress has even been linked to metabolic syndrome, a cluster of features that can lead to greater health problems like heart attacks and diabetes.
  • Fat Storage: Too much stress even affects where we tend to store fat! Greater levels of abdominal fat are linked with higher levels of stress. Unfortunately, abdominal fat is not only aesthetically undesirable, it's linked with greater health risks than fat stored in other areas of the body.

Stress and weight gain are also connected in other ways:

  • Emotional Eating: Not only can increased levels of cortisol make you crave unhealthy food, excess nervous energy often causes people to eat more than they normally would. How many times have you found yourself scouring the kitchen for a snack, or absently munching on junk food when you're not really hungry, but just overly stressed?
  • Fast Food: Experts believe that one of the big reasons we're seeing more obesity in our society these days is that people are too stressed and busy to make healthy dinners at home, and are more often opting to get fast food a the nearest drive-thru. Do you ever find yourself paying more than you'd like to for food that's more convenient than healthy?
  • Too Busy to Exercise: With all the demands on your schedule, exercise may be one of the last things on your to do list. If so, you're not alone. Americans live a more sedentary lifestyle than we have in generations past, yet our minds seem to be racing from everything we have to do. Unfortunately, from sitting in traffic to sitting at our desks to sitting in front of the t.v. in exhaustion at the end of the day, exercise often goes by the wayside.

Fortunately, there some easy things you can do to stay healthy even when your stress levels do begin to raise:

  • Plan Ahead: An important first step in a healthy eating plan is to go grocery shopping once a week, and plan the week's meals when you do it. That way, you'll already have all the ingredients you need, and there'll be no stress in deciding what to eat each night; it's already planned!
  • Keep It Simple, Silly: You don't need to cook a four-course meal. Often, what's healthy is also what's easy. (Think about it: a salad is easier to throw together than fried chicken; grilled chicken takes less work than lasagna.) Just try to have a nice balance of protein, fruits and vegetables, and not too much fat and breads.
  • Cook Ahead: You can maximize your time by cooking more than you need, and reheating meals later in the week or month. Some people spend one day a month cooking full meals and stocking their freezers; then they have healthy, homemade food to eat all month with minimal effort. Others (like me) make a pot of soup or chili each week and have it for lunches with salad throughout the week, or as part of dinner a couple nights. It's a great way to fill yourself up for less, and work vegetables into your diet!
  • Use a Crock Pot: Yes, they've made a comeback, and are a great part of a healthy eating plan. Many people use crock pots, or slow cookers, these days because you can toss in a few ingredients in the morning and come home to the savory aroma of a meal ready to be eaten immediately!

Stress is unhealthy, both emotionally and physically, take steps to lower your stress, and steps to continue to stay fit and eat healthy!!

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