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    Stress and weight gain

    By Nick Hall

    Our bodies have an inbuilt survival mechanism which dates back to when we were living outdoors, hunting for food, surviving cold winters and going periods of time without eating. Food was often scarce and we could face the possibility of long winters without food. As a result, our bodies would conserve energy and store fat in order to prevent us from starving to death. Our bodies would also ensure that we didn’t carry too much additional weight in the event we had to out run a predator or if we had to run fast in order to catch food.

    We no longer face famines however our bodies still carry this survival mechanism. If we are faced with a certain kind of stress, our body can go into survival mode.

    The different forms of stress could be workplace stress, emotional stress, financial stress, changing jobs, physical trauma, medical treatment or medication, dehydration, over training or nutritional famine. None of these forms of stress may be life threatening however your body may interpret this kind of stress as potentially threatening.
    The chemical response caused in your body is the same chemistry you would be experiencing if you were in a famine.

    Your body has a stress hormone called cortisol. During periods of chronic stress, cortisol levels increase. Cortisol communicates to every cell in your body that there is no food. It sends a message to your metabolism to slow down, conserve energy and store fat. Your body will no longer be sensitive to insulin, your body will start to break down muscle and you will start to crave calorie dense foods.

    Nutritional Famine
    Poor nutritional intake either by eating too much of the wrong type of food or eating too little can also create a chemical response that will most likely end up causing you to put on more weight.

    A diet usually indicates that there is some form of restriction on what you can eat. Examples are no carb diets, no fat diets or diets based on a certain amount of calories per day. The restrictive nature of these diets reduces the amount of essential nutrients or energy your body needs in order to function properly, burn fat and repair muscle damage.

    Following a diet will usually result in some short term weight loss and this is usually forced weight loss. However the stress put on your body from the restrictive nature of the diet will result in your body feeling as though it is in a famine or a form of starvation. You may find your energy levels falling and the hormonal changes in your body will result in you craving more energy dense food in order to lift your energy levels.

    You’ll find yourself having to restrict more and more in order to keep weight off. Sooner or later you’ll no longer be able to fight the cravings that you are experiencing and a binge will occur. Within a short space of time, the weight you have worked so hard to lose has bounced back. It’s like letting go of a helium balloon. Once you let go it’s hard to get it back

    If your body isn’t receiving enough of the right nutrients, your body then needs to decide which biological process is going to receive less energy such as your immune system, reproductive system, digestive system, circulatory system etc. This can then lead to further long term health problems.


    After a period of intense exercise, adrenaline and cortisol levels are elevated. Once the body has recovered, cortisol levels return to normal. Doing too much of the wrong type of exercise can result in over training and inflammation. If your body is under a constant state of stress due to exercise your cortisol levels will remain elevated which again can cause your body to want to gain weight and crave the wrong types of foods. Your body’s immunity can also become impaired which can leave you more susceptible to illness.


    As your body may interpret a form of stress as a life threatening situation, you need to be able to identify what form of stress may be contributing to weight gain or preventing weight loss and then address how to deal with that situation. You also need to be able to communicate to yourself that this type of stress is not a physical threat that will cause you harm.

    Reducing cortisol levels
    There are a number of methods that can help reduce your stress or cortisol levels such as walking,
    Meditation, yoga, Pilates, concentrated deep breathing, increased consumption of omega 3, green tea or green tea extract, dark chocolate or vitamin C.

    For further information on how to deal with cravings as a result of stress refer to our article on cravings.

    Roberts, C. The effects of stress on food choice, mood and bodyweight in healthy women. British Nutrition Foundation.
    Check, P. How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy.
    Weaver, Dr L. Accidentally Overweight.
    Mercola, Dr J. This Hormone Makes Counting Calories Irrelevant.

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