Stress can make you fat and ruin your weight-loss plans — here’s how to beat it

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THE hamster wheel of life – work, eat, sleep, repeat – can leave many feeling stressed but did you know a hectic lifestyle could lead to you piling on excess weight too?

Four out of five adults feel stressed during a typical week and for women especially, higher stress levels can lead to excess fat around the abdominal organs — sometimes known as a “stress belly”.

Did you know stress is making you fat? Here’s all the ways how
Getty – Contributor

And that’s not the only way stress can lead to weight gain.

Nutritionist Kim Pearson explains how getting wound up can send the pounds up and explains how to tackle the problem.

FAT STORAGE: Stress leads to elevated levels of cortisol — known as the stress hormone — which contributes to the storage of fat, particularly abdominal fat that is often the hardest to get rid of.

Stress can also lead to a decrease in fat oxidation, the process that allows fat to be burnt as energy. This means that you don’t necessarily have to be consuming more food to put weight on.

Constantly being on edge can tip the scales – and not in your favour
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Combat this issue: Take steps to manage your stress such as deep breathing, going for a short walk or building time into your day to relax. Herbal supplements such as ashwagandha and rhodiola have been shown to help lower cortisol levels. (If you are taking medication, you should always check with your doctor before taking supplements).

SLOWED METABOLISM: On-going stress has been linked to a slowed metabolism, particularly in women. One study found that on average, stressed women burned more than 100 fewer calories per day than non-stressed participants. You can see how all these extra calories add up to weight gain over time.

Combat this issue: You can help keep your metabolism higher with meals based around a healthy protein source, trying to get a good night’s sleep and doing some daily exercise.

EMOTIONAL EATING: Fluctuating hormonal levels in times of stress can leave us with excess nervous energy which often results in overeating (often labelled “emotional eating”) as we reach for additional portions or snacks as a diversion or temporary relief from the stress.

Emotional eating is when we reach for more food as a temporary relief from stress
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Combat this issue: When you open the snack cupboard or reach for seconds, take a moment to consider whether you are actually hungry . . . or eating as a distraction from the issues or activities causing you stress.

CRAVING BAD FOODS: Once the initial adrenalin rush of stress wears off, cortisol levels are still raised in the body. This stress hormone suppresses functions that are viewed by the body as least essential, such as reproductive, immune and digestive functioning. This cortisol can also cause cravings for unhealthy foods such as snacks that are high in sugar and fat.

Combat this issue: Ensure your cupboards are free from temptations that you might reach for in times of high stress and instead make sure you have healthy, easy options such as nuts, boiled eggs and vegetable sticks prepared.

Reduce the pressure

  • Identify your triggers. Make a list of everything you are feeling stressed about and action how to eliminate or reduce each point. Prioritise these actions and you will start to find it more manageable.
  • Structure your days. Setting and keeping to a daily routine can really help you to minimise stress. This should include a set wake up and bedtime as well as allocations for working, exercising and leisure time.
  • Getting just half an hour of daily exercise can have a really positive impact on both your health and mood.
  • Carefully plan your daily meals ensuring you are eating a healthy, balanced diet rich in healthy fats, protein and lots of vegetables and fruit.

EATING TOO QUICKLY: Excess nervous energy combined with time pressures that are causing you stress can lead to eating your meals too quickly. You might think that you’re saving time by speeding up your eating, but not properly chewing your food makes it more difficult for your body to digest, which can lead to symptoms of indigestion. In addition, the faster you eat, the less likely you are to receive your body’s signals that you are full, which can lead to eating a much larger portion than you need.

Combat this issue: Try to set aside a decent amount of time for your meals and chew your food thoroughly. If you are really pushed for time, serve yourself a smaller portion than normal and wait at least half an hour after finishing to assess if you really need more.

The ‘stress hormone’ cortisol can cause cravings for junk food, packed with fat and sugar
Getty – Contributor

SKIPPING MEALS: Skipping a meal might seem like the best option when your body is flooded with adrenalin and you’re pushed for time. But skipping meals is likely to lead to overeating later in the day or reaching for fast food when hunger strikes you while you’re on the move.

Combat the issue: Plan out what you’re going to eat and when throughout the day. This will help to regulate your diet when you have a hundred other things on your mind. If you can meal prep in advance at less busy times, you’ll thank yourself later.

MORE ALCOHOL: It is very common to reach for a drink to help you relax when you’re stressed.

Alcohol is a depressant, so it slows down the brain and the central nervous system so in the short term you feel more relaxed. But not only can excess alcohol lead to weight gain through overeating the next day to stave off a hangover, inevitable late-night takeaways and sugars in the drinks themselves, but over time heavy drinking has an adverse effect on mental health by interfering with the neurotransmitters in the brain.

Alcohol makes you feel more relaxed …in the short term but in the long term it plays havoc with your brain
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Combat the issue: You need to find alternative “reward” behaviours to help you relax, such as a cup of herbal tea or a bath and limit your drinks to one glass with a meal and opt for low-sugar options like a glass of dry wine.


Getting a good night’s sleep is essential to keeping stress levels and your weight down
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LESS SLEEP: If you end up sleeping less because of stress you will burn more calories, right? Wrong. Research suggests that sleep deprivation is actually linked to a slower metabolism, while being overtired also makes you more likely to opt for quick, unhealthy food choices the next day. A recent study also found that women who fall asleep with the television on, or are exposed to artificial light at night, are more likely to gain weight.

Combat the issue: Work on your sleep health, with a strict bedtime and no phone in bed. Eat your last meal at least two hours before bed and avoid starchy carbs that could lead to sugar crashes.

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