While the immediate response to acute stress can be a temporary loss of appetite and increased metabolism, more and more we are coming to recognize that for some people, chronic stress can be tied to an increase in appetite and stress-induced weight gain. Both hormones and behavioral responses to stress can cause unwanted weight gain.
So, yes, stress can cause weight gain!
The Health Effects of Stress
Stress induced weight gain is commonly tied to the hormone cortisol. Cortisol has been termed the "stress hormone" because excess cortisol is secreted during times of physical or psychological stress, and the normal pattern of cortisol secretion can be altered. This disruption of cortisol secretion may not only promote weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Some studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat accumulation in the abdominal area rather than in the hips.
This fat profile is commonly referred to as being “apple shaped” rather than “pear shaped.” And unfortunately, abdominal fat accumulation is strongly correlated with the development of both diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, when we get stressed, some people tend to turn towards food for comfort since eating can stimulate “feel good hormones,” although this relief is often only short term.
The supplement industry has created and promoted products that claim to decrease one’s level of cortisol, however there has been no independent scientific studies or research to show that these supplements have any effect on cortisol levels.
On the bright side, research has shown that exercise is by far the best way to reduce cortisol levels that have risen in response to stress. Additionally, exercise helps to burn extra calories, thus promoting weight management.
How to Manage "Stress" Eating
There are some ways to combat if you are a known “stress eater,” such as keeping your kitchen stocked with healthy snacks and consider researching healthier versions of your favorite comfort foods, like macaroni and cheese, chili, sloppy Joes and chocolate desserts. Additionally, some foods and nutrients are known to combat everyday stress and fight the free radicals stress can cause. So stock up on these foods and feel the relief they can bring:
Sip on Tea
Drinking caffeinated black, green or oolong tea varieties may elicit a more alert state of mind. Theanine, an amino acid found in tea, can help to improve attention, focus and overall mood.
Recent research shows eating dark chocolate can help reduce levels of cortisol and catecholamines (hormones associated with stress), especially for those with high anxiety. Keep in mind, chocolate is high in saturated fat and calories, so practicing portion control is a must.
With stress also comes more comfort food cravings. So why not indulge in some? Oatmeal, a complex carbohydrate, is the perfect (and healthy) comfort food your body wants. Oatmeal causes your brain to produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical. And beta-glucan, the type of soluble fiber found in oatmeal, has been shown to promote greater satiety than other whole grains.
All berries, including blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, are rich in vitamin C. Studies have shown that those who consumed high amounts of vitamin C before a stressful situation had lower blood pressure and lower levels of cortisol compared to those who didn’t consume high amounts of vitamin C.
If you're looking for more health and wellness tips, visit our blog and Healthy Beat with Rene Ficek, RD - we're constantly updating our site with new ways to leave you feeling and looking great! If you're looking for a fresh and healthy meal plan to guide you to better health, take a look at the fabulous menus from Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating!