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Beat Stress, Weigh Less

The Connection Between Stress and Weight Gain

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These days, it seems that everyone is stressed. We all have too much to do and too little time to do it. Times are tough, money is tight, and deadlines are imminent. 

What happens when you're stressed? You tend to eat more, sleep less, skip the gym and feel rundown. Additionally, stress is linked to a number of illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and an increased risk for cancer.

No wonder so many of us are gaining weight. A study in the July 2009 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology studied stress related work demands, difficulty paying bills, strained family relationships, and depression or anxiety disorders in a nationally representative group of 1,355 men and women for more than nine years. The overall result? Men tend to gain weight when unable to make decisions at work, learn new skills job or perform interesting job duties. More types of stress affected women's waistlines, according to the study. In addition to weight gain associated with financial problems or a difficult job, women also gained weight when dealing with strained family relationships and feeling limited by life's circumstances. Overall, this study found that people who reported increased stress gained more weight if they already had higher body mass indexes. In other words, if you're overweight already, you're even more likely to gain weight when under stress.

Although everyone handles stress differently, these researchers believe that when coping with life's stressful periods, people change their eating behaviors—and not for the better. Food isn't the only factor that influences stress-induced weight gain; a person's gender, the types of foods they eat, and whether or not the person is already overweight or obese are all contributing factors. This explains why some people gain more weight under stressful circumstances, while others may gain just a little or even lose weight.

It's obvious that to fight weight gain or to lose weight permanently, we have to control and manage the stress in our lives. How do you do that? Why does the body react this way to stress?

The Science behind Stress
Stress serves an evolutionary purpose. Think back to the early caveman days when bills weren't an issue but saber-toothed tigers were. In preparation for a possible attack, our body's neuroendocrine system would send out a "fight or flight" set of hormones: adrenalin, corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol. Adrenaline gives us instant energy, CRH decreases appetite initially, but later, after the threat is long gone, cortisol can increase appetite to make up for energy that was lost fighting the tiger or running away.
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About The Author

Jennipher Walters Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomeGirls.com, FitBottomedMamas.com and FitBottomedEats.com. A certified personal trainer, health coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and is the author of The Fit Bottomed Girls Anti-Diet book (Random House, 2014).

See all of Jenn's articles.

Member Comments

  • I find this article to be burdened with cultural gender biases. Heads up, women feel stress at work, just like men. Our stress is not based only on family responsibilities. In fact, some men feel stress associated with family issues as well. Please take your science and review it for the corrupt of preconceived gender roles and expectations. - 9/11/2014 3:20:59 PM
  • EX-SKINNY60
    DITTO, GRAYGRANNY! and if stress KILLS then I'm a marked woman there, too! - 7/14/2014 9:26:36 AM
  • There is a large area of stress that wasn't acknowledged in the quiz, for those of us who are caretakers either of an elderly parent or a disabled child or in my case both. Neither of these can be eliminated so although my quiz resulted in at moderate risk for stress, my actual stress level is much higher. - 7/14/2014 8:15:25 AM
  • Good suggestions. - 7/14/2014 5:23:05 AM
  • I am reading this article (and others) while eating my breakfast and watching Lift Every Voice.
    My stress, I believe comes from never feeling like I am good enough for my Mother.

    But.... today, I choose to focus and pleasing GOD and to continue teaching the youth that I can reach out to. - 10/20/2013 10:12:14 AM
  • I really liked this article. Woke up this morning, said my prayers, fixed breakfast for my family and took time to log into Spark, eat and drink my tea.
    Thank you SparkPeople!!! - 9/4/2013 10:27:27 AM
  • Well then, I am screwed!!! - 7/25/2013 2:51:42 PM
  • Exercise is the best stress reliever for me! And I have made good friends at my gym that help each other stay motivated:) - 7/24/2013 11:03:41 AM
  • There is a lot of sound advice in this article, but for me the #1 culprit of unexplained weight gain was CARBOHYDRATES. - 7/24/2013 9:34:03 AM
  • This article is so true. That's how I put on so much weight from stress dealing with family stuff all the time. So now I just go and exercise to stay focus. - 6/29/2013 8:13:05 AM
  • I agree that exercise is a great way to relieve stress. In addition, I have set my phone alarm to remind to sit down, relax, do some breathing techniques as well as meditate. What a Difference!!! - 5/23/2013 1:10:54 PM
  • i have found that exercise is even very helpful in combating stress.
    Keep mind and weight under control. - 10/5/2012 12:08:35 AM
  • UNDERTHEPALMS
    All of this is so true and so necessary to apply. I need to not make taking care of me and eating the right things one more stress as I totally have in the past. - 9/17/2012 6:13:32 PM
  • This is definitely true to my life. I put on so much weight during nursing school it wasn't even funny! On bad days at work we often find ourselves buying bags of mini candy bars for the break room for "stress relief". That doesn't even play into the difficulty losing weight while stressed, just the ease of gaining! - 7/3/2012 4:54:40 PM
  • Stress seems to hold a band over the weight and not only keep it from leaving, but also seems to attract any passing fat and hold onto it tightly. I really don't have any free time to sit back and relax. I try to 'make' the time, but it's just not there. I'm just stretched too thin. Any suggestions are always appreciated.

    Thanks guys!
    Tanya - 5/30/2012 8:19:22 PM

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