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Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?

How to keep the world's woes from weighing you down

'Fight or flee' -- or chow down continued...

Following those stress signals can lead not only to weight gain, but also the tendency to store what is called "visceral fat" around the midsection. These fat cells that lie deep within the abdomen have been linked to an increase in both diabetes and heart disease.

To further complicate matters, the "fuel" our muscles need during "fight or flight " is sugar -- one reason we crave carbohydrates when we are stressed, says endocrinologist Riccardo Perfetti, MD, PhD.

"To move the sugar from our blood to our muscles requires insulin, the hormone that opens the gates to the cells and lets the sugar in," says Perfetti, who directs the outpatient diabetes program at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. And high levels of sugar and insulin set the stage for the body to store fat.

"So people who are under stress, metabolically speaking, will gain weight for that very reason," Perfetti tells WebMD.

Mind Over Matter

As much as we would like to blame all our weight gain on stress, experts say that eating in response to stress can also be a learned habit -- one that's merely encouraged by brain chemistry.

"Under stress, there's an impulse to do something, to move, and often, eating becomes the activity that relieves the stress. It's easy to do and it's comforting," says David Ginsberg, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Behavioral Health Program at New York University Medical Center.

In fact, it may be our bodies' initial response to rising levels of cortisol that teaches us there is comfort in sugary or starchy foods.

"During the first couple of days following a stressful event, cortisol is giving you a clue to eat high-carbohydrate foods," Perfetti tells WebMD. "Once you comply, you quickly learn a behavioral response that you can feel almost destined to repeat anytime you feel stressed."

Now for the good news: Whether your urge to eat is driven by hormones or habits or a combination of both, research shows there are ways to interrupt the cycle, break the stress and stop the weight gain.

Here's what the experts recommend:

1. Exercise. This is the best stress-buster -- and also happens to be good for you in lots of other ways. "It not only burns calories, when you move your body, even with a simple activity such as walking, you begin to produce a cascade of biochemicals, at least some of which counter the negative effects of stress hormones -- as well as control insulin and sugar levels," says Talbott.

At the same time, Ginsburg notes that exercising too hard for too long can raise cortisol levels and actually increase stress. The answer, he says is to choose an activity you really enjoy doing -- be it an aerobic sport like running or a calmer activity such as Pilates -- and then keep workouts to a length that doesn't exhaust you (this could be as little as 20 minutes a day, three to five days a week).

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