What does chronic stress do to your weight and what to do about it

April is Stress Awareness Month. Stress does a lot of bad things to people including ruining relationships and causing chronic disease. One disease that’s clearly connected with stress is obesity. Stress is a physical and psychological trigger for overeating.

Many people don’t understand what stress does to them or that their stress coping mechanisms are creating more stress. Here are some of the more common ways that coping with stress cause weight gain:

Skipping meals

Some people say they’re too stressed to eat and have no appetite. Others say, “I don’t have time to eat.” Either way, skipping meals and letting long periods of time go between eating slows metabolism. When stressed meal skippers finally do eat they may make these 3 mistakes that cause weight gain.

  1. Unbalanced food choices. They grab convenience foods that are processed with added fat and sugar and are high in calories and low in nutrients.
  2. Eat too much too fast. After skipping meals and creating a sluggish metabolism they eat too much food, possibly too fast so they don’t realize how much they ate. Their bodies can’t use all of the calories they just dumped into their systems, so the excess calories get stored as fat.
  3. Get into a habit of fasting and bingeing. Skipping meals and eating too much can lead to a habit of fasting and bingeing and more weight gain.

Emotional eating

Some people seek relief from stress by eating highly palatable food. An emotional eater is looking for pleasure, or in other words, a way to escape the constant pain of the stress. Carrot sticks and broiled fish fillets are not the foods they’re seeking to help them feel better.

The food emotional eaters typically want is more likely to be calorie-heavy comfort foods, These foods can be described as rich, creamy, greasy, salty, and sugary. Emotional eaters are likely to indulge in the behavior in front of a screen. The negative effects of emotional eating tend to be exacerbated by a sedentary lifestyle.


Stressed people often increase their stress level by worrying about things over which they have no control and may never even happen. Excessive worrying raises levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. we have consistently elevated levels of cortisol.

Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands. Its job is to give us energy to fight or flee from danger. Then it drives us to eat to replace our energy stores. Worry has the same effect on our body as facing a threat to our physical well-being. Constant worrying make the body thinks it continually needs extra fuel. When our bodies think they need more fuel, we respond by giving it the fuel it’s seeking by eating.

Loss of sleep

Stressed people have trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep. Indigestion from stress eating, constant worrying preventing the brain from shutting off stressful thoughts and nervous energy created by high levels of cortisol all get in the way of quality rest.

Lack of sleep messes with appetites in two significant ways. It raises levels of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and makes our bodies resistant to the satiety hormone, leptin. That results in a constant, gnawing hunger that’s impossible to ignore and a feeling of never eating enough to feel full and satisfied.

It’s no wonder that stress-filled lives are closely associated with obesity. The really insidious thing about stress is our reaction to it. We talk in such a way to increase our stress.


Choosing to reduce stress starts with paying attention to how we talk to ourselves. Some of us get into a habit of saying, “I’m so stressed out about – fill in the blank.” It could be any silly,  inconsequential thing but  Simply talking about stress increases not only our stress levels, but also how the stress affects our bodies and weight.

“I feel like I live in a pressure cooker. My job is so stressful and my family is so demanding.”

“I’m trying to lose weight and I’m freaking out about all the food everywhere. I don’t know how I can handle this stress.”

“I’m overextended and underpaid. I don’t know how long I can keep up with all of my bills.”

Those are 3 examples of stress doing the talking. What happens when you dwell on and talk about your stress? Yes, that’s right, it doesn’t help to calm you down or feel in control; It creates more stress. Knowing we make our little stressors into big ones makes us wonder why do we give ourselves stress talks?

All that stress does bad stuff to us. We can’t eliminate the things that cause us stress, but we can learn how to recognize when we’re dealing with stress in an unhealthy way. We can eliminate some stress by seeing that our response is only making things more stressful than they need to be.

Here are some signs of unhealthy responses to stress.
  • Inability to think about anything else but what’s stresses you
  • Getting in the way of enjoying activities you normal find fun or pleasurable
  • Criticizing yourself (negative self-talk)
  • Driving fast in a car
  • Chewing your fingernails
  • Becoming aggressive or violent towards people or inanimate objects
  • Unhealthy eating behaviors including unbalanced diet, eating too much, or not barely eating at all
  • Turning to or increasing use of tobacco products
  • Turning to or increased drinking of alcohol
  • Yelling at your spouse, children, and/or friends
  • Abusing drugs

We need to stop increasing the stress in our lives by learning how to give ourselves pep talks instead of stress talks.

Pep talk #1: “I’m doing okay right now.”

Break down your life into manageable pieces. The famous AA saying is, “One Day at a Time.” That’s a start, but let’s face it, we know a lot of stuff can happen in 24 hours. Let’s break it down more than by a day. All we really need to attend to is, “what’s happening right now.” No need to worry about tonight or even later this afternoon.

Pep talk #2: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

Let others worry about their problems. It’s natural to worry about people for whom you care. Your care and empathy supports them; taking on their problems and stress hurts you and doesn’t help them. Let go of stress that’s not yours.

Pep talk #3: “I know how to manage stress in ways that reduce stress and my weight.”

Sometimes we feel like we’re getting kicked while we’re down. Stressful events seem to keep piling up on us to the point where everything and anything has us, “so stressed out.”  Turning to food can be a destructive stress management strategy, especially when it’s high-calorie foods. The stress makes eating such foods difficult to control. That’s when it’s smart to have non food stress relieving strategies to employ. Eat high-calorie foods when you’re feeling strong, not stressed.

Instead of turning to food, give yourself clear instructions to restore feelings of control and relieve stress such as: (1) Take a deep breath (2) Close your eyes and envision the release of tension (3) repeat until feeling calm.

Now that you know what stress does to you, your health, and your weight-related goals you can begin applying your strategy to combat its effects and win.

Jackie Conn

About Jackie Conn

Jackie Conn is married and has four grown daughters and four grandchildren. She is a Weight Watchers success story. She's a weight loss expert with 25 years of experience guiding women and men to their weight-related goals. Her articles on weight management have been published in health, family and women's magazines. She has been a regular guest on Channel 5 WABI news, FOX network morning program Good Day Maine and 207 on WCSH.