Decreasing Calories Can Increase Stress Level

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Let's face it: Dieting can be stressful. Especially when you begin to change your eating habits, there are lots of things to think about. It can be hard to count calories, track food, read labels, and do it all with a "lifestyle change" instead of "diet" mentality. New research is showing that it's not only mentally stressful, but can also be physically stressful on the body to restrict calories.

The study, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, found that people who cut calories have an increased level of the stress hormone cortisol. Participants were divided into 4 groups: those who ate 1,200 calories per day and tracked their food, those who ate a pre-packaged diet of 1,200 calories per day (and didn't have to track food), non-dieters who counted calories and non-dieters who did not count calories.

Participants were given surveys and saliva tests before and after the study to measure their stress levels. According to the researchers, "Participants who cut calories had higher levels of cortisol than before they started the plan and higher levels than non-dieters in the study." So it wasn't tracking food that mattered when it came to stress levels- it was the physical act of cutting calories.

Cortisol has a number of functions in the body. People who are pregnant, depressed, sleep-deprived or very athletic, for example, can have high levels of cortisol. High levels of this hormone can stimulate your appetite, leading to weight gain or difficulty losing weight. It's not as simple as saying cutting calories was the only reason for the increase of cortisol levels in this study, but it's an interesting theory to explore further.

Although you can't completely control your body's reaction to dietary changes, there are some things you can do to make the process a little easier. Consider all of the changes you're making to be permanent lifestyle changes instead of a temporary diet. If you're making changes you don't think you can live with long-term, reconsider them. Also keep in mind that small changes can add up to big results over time. So you don't need to completely overhaul your diet overnight.

It's hard to be patient when we want to see fast results. But losing weight slowly can help you keep it off for good and also make the process as stress-free as possible.

What do you think?

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The premise of the article is that stress is bad. Is it? Isn't life full of stressors? We can adjust and grow because of them Report
Interesting-my doctor actually told me to stop tracking my food, as it causes stress. We're also having a weight loss challenge at work, and I was advised not to take part in anything competitive. My weight gain 3 years ago (50-60 6 months) was sudden, rapid, and unexplained. Even after I started tracking food (I had been working out all along) I continued to gain weight. I had just relocated across the country, and was pretty stressed out adjusting to a new place and culture, not to mention job, apartment, etc. My doc says it is stress related, and tracking food just increases stress, and that's why I kept gaining weight after restricting calories and working out 6 days a week. Frustrating when what you eat or how active you are has nothing to do with what you weigh. Still can't lose a pound, but at least the gain stopped. I quit working out too, and didn't gain any weight as a result. Why bother if it doesn't make any difference? It made me feel so drained when it used to give me energy, and took 2 hours out of my day I could spend on other things. Report
I do think there is certain amount of stress related to changing your eating habits and finding time for exercise. I have had to rework my routines and schedule to make time to prepare my lunch to take to work and to exercise when I get home. It has caused family stress as well because my routines and expectations have changed. There are places I simply will not go to eat because there is absolutely nothing healthy on the menu. This has caused some disagreements even though my family is generally very supportive of what I'm doing. I think it is stress that will work itself out as we all get use to the changes I'm making but I find that I have to really take time to think and plan to make the changes work. So my house isn't nearly as clean, I've been a little late to work a few mornings recently, and my garden is neglected so far this spring. Report
Unfortunately, this is one of those stories about one of those "studies" that "they" come up with that gives only part of the information. It's the premise for protein-drink-diets or stimulant-based-diets or banana-orange-juice-diets or whatever. is extreme or edgy. This shows neither the value of nutrition nor the value of exercise; it doesn't indicate the value of enjoying good food or of the choice of a lifelong plan for exercising your body. If you're going to "diet" at 1200 or 1000 calories, you're definitely going to be stressed, weak, sleepless and cranky. I don't consider this plan a smart choice and I learned that from SparkPeople. Report
This is all so very conflicting, I don't know what to think. I kind of wish I hadn't read it. Report
I got between 1200-1500 calories, and it is stressful, it is an adjustment--and in the back of my mind I know I can never go back to eating more calories, or this will be for nothing. What I do is take note of the differences between what I used to eat compared to what I eat now. For example, my favorite breakfast has always been pancakes with peanut butter and syrup along with oj--altogether clocking in around 600-800 calories. Today I had Special K granola at 6 am and at 10am, 1/2 C light yogurt, 1 C sliced strawberries, and 1/4 C granola. Altogether about 400 calories. I'm fuller and don't have a sugar drop to worry about later. And it's actually more food.
It's hard to adapt...but if I want to change my weight and my health, I have to change what I eat. Ultimately, for me, substitituing the cookies, chips and ice cream with veggies and fruits is really making the transition easy (and smart!)
And now, almost halfway to my goal--I feel great! Keep up the great work fellow Sparkers! Report
I don't find this study interesting or helpful and agree with others who expressed it was far too restricted - in terms of size of participants and in terms of calories. It was also restricted in that it only looked at one tiny area - track or not track. 1200 calories, as people have mentioned, is not a healthy calorie amount for people over the long term. Did this focus on men, women, short, tall, active, non-active? Were people hungry or full? Were there other stressors in their lives that were not factored into the study. Anything that starts with "psychosomatic" bothers me, as it implies that it's "all in the head, false, not real." As I told many a doctor, of course it's in my head, my brain is there and its releasing the hormones that are creating the issues - stupid to tell me that it's false, as it's very real. Even so-called psychosomatic illnesses have an underlying reason for the illness, its not fake or false. That's a sideline though, so I won't go on about that. Suffice to say that there are many solid studies regarding the impact of stress hormones on the body, especially over the long term and it's a shame that SP chose an article that was so superficial. Report
1200 calories ... 1600 calories ... whatever study, what's the difference? The size acceptance, fat acceptance, Health at Every Size, anti-dieting communities knew this about food restriction decades ago ... it is very tough for a hungry dieter or an overexercised dieting exerciser to avoid the lack of concentration, irritability, fixating on food, lightheadedness, feelings of being too cold, etc. without doing some sort of workaround ... to ignore these symptoms (yes, these are symptoms, because food restriction is an intervention)

Teenyweenie Report
I agree that it is a lifestyle change and not a diet. Different food at different times; since it is a permanent thing. Report
I love this article! I was just corresponding to another Sparker that what I'm doing I want to be doing for life. I'm doing it differently this time around. I am not restricting myself and creating rigid guidelines like I used to just to lose the weight, because once it comes off and I stop those guidelines the weight will simply come right back on. Report
Only 1200 calories? Sheesh, no wonder those people were stressed! Of course their body is going to freak out if it thinks it's starving! I think it's a biased study just on the basis of that alone. How about they redo that study with 1600 calories? Report
Just beginning my lifestyle change....dealing with stress is a daily thing for me anyway, but i am in this to win it! Report
I have learned by experience that the best way to eat lose unnecessary weight is by (1) substituting healthier foods for junk food (including not having them on hand) ; (2) avoiding all sweets and refined starches, inc. an excess of fruit, but consuming healthy fats such as olive oil and healthy spreads; (3) snacking on high-fiber vegs with lo-fat cheese, hummus, etc.); (4) don't eat when you're not hungry and when you do eat, eat only till you're "almost full"; and (5) walking more. These work best for me: no counting anything, healthier food habits, and increased activity ("don't ride when you can walk and don't sit when you can stand". In other words, DON'T save your steps!. I am losing weight slowly but steadily. Report
Gosh, this is exactly what I'm going through right now. It seems the harder I try the more I sabotage myself lately. One day at a time! Report
dieting is very stressful but it does get easier as the days go by Report
I completely agree. Stress is killer on the diet plan. However, how do they not go hand in hand??? At least in the beginning. Any lifestyle change is a touch transition, stress can be good and stress can be detrimental. Its keeping the right attitude that makes it all worth while with goals in mind and those skinny jeans in your closet!!! Report
I have learned that when I am most stringent in watching calories, that is when my weight loss slows. I try make sure I always balance my nutrients, but occasionally I will make sure that I eat more calories ... at the upper levels of my range if not over slightly ... just for a day or two. Weight loss will pick up again and then I will go back to monitoring more closely again. I'm not focused on doing this in one, two or even three months. My goal is another 42 pounds and although I would love to lose 2 pounds every week so long as it is NOT going back up and the occasional pound down, I am a success! If that takes a year, so be it (although I am hoping for Jan. 1). Making small incremental changes that last will see me through. I try to keep eating out to once a week or less and then only with friends. If I eat more calories that one day, I go back to watching the next day. Report
..makes sense...I certainly notice a difference when my calories are too low! Report
Small changes over time produce a good result. Sounds like small but steady wins the race. Report
Very good article Jen.

Since beginning my training for my first half-marathon I've been stuck within in the same 3 pound range. After talking with many of the experienced Spark runners cortisol is to blame. I've been tearing my body down while building mileage. Even with the extra calories and rest my body is taking a beating.
Thanks for the insight. Report
Hmmm...interesting. Makes sense, I guess.

I agree with EWATER's comments - the more restricted you are with your intake, the more stressed/hungry you will feel, and 1200 is the lowest recommendation possible by any healthy weight-loss standard. Thank goodness for SP and their sensible, healthy approach! Report
I personally don't agree. Report
I feel more stressed after I eat too much, and definitely more stressed when I realize I've gained weight. It's been quite a few years since I started keeping track of my activity and what I eat, so maybe I'm just used to the "stress" of watching what I eat? Knowing I'm doing something good for myself by saying no to extra calories makes me feel great, not stressed! Report
Check out this link:

I plugged in my GOAL weight to the basal metabolic rate calculations and discovered the high end of my calorie range (1650) is where I should be eating if I did NO activity whatsoever. Since part of the Spark lifestyle approach is to exercise 3-5 days/week consistently, Sparkers are creating an even greater caloric deficit to result in 1-2 pounds per week of loss. In addition, we are monitoring the ratio of our protein/carb/fat intake. I have found since consuming enough protein, my overall daily stress levels have plummeted. I still have self-image/self-esteem stress associated with my appearance but that is always there and is separate from the stress of caloric restriction. I think this study is insufficiently detailed, and 1200 calories seems extremely restrictive for even a shorter woman like me even if I did absolutely no exercise. In my case, before discovering Spark, I was indeed unknowingly "undereating calories" most days of the week, more irritable, and generally more stressed. And I definitely was not getting enough protein. This meant I had blood sugar spikes and valleys and I believe despite a probable intake of around 1200 calories, my metabolism had gone into a near "starvation mode" and slowed to a crawl. Report
i feel there is more stress in dieting and not living up to what my goals are than it is to take it slow, one change at a time Report
nothing worthwhile comes easy Report
It's not too surprising. I've heard that one of the theories behind why calorie restriction improves health is that it applies a constant low-level stress to the body, which may sort of... teach the cells to cope well with stress so that when big stressors come along they're less of a problem. Just a theory of course, they haven't completely worked out the whole calorie restriction thing, beyond knowing that it seems to work very well for the people who can successfully do it.

I would think that if you were worried about the cortisol, instead of paying attention to whether the changes you're making are things that can be permanent you'd be better off adding activities that are well known to be good for stress (and cortisol) control. Cuddle your pets, meditate, do highly repetitive tasks that create a relaxation response (like simple knitting), etc. Report
Dieting is hard, but if you work at it and take the ups and downs, it is worth it. Report
I don't know about stress or cortisol levels. If my calorie intake gets too low for more than a few days, I get head aches, have no energy to do anything, can't sleep well and just want to eat things that has sugar in it. I try to stay bwt 1500 to 1800 cals, but only lose 1-2 pounds a week. Report
I'm not surprised that there cortisol levels were raised - 1200 calories a day is a very strict diet. One can diet and eat more calories than that. My calorie range on spark is between 1550-1900, which is much more reasonable. Report
This sounds like a study funded by those companies that try to sell supplements to people needing to lose weight, so they can fake supposed research to put in their ads to fool the lost souls that want an easy out. It always seems to work too, look at how many people still buy that useless stuff, even Costco sells the stuff. Report
Funny this article came up.
My choices are healthy, I am running 3-5 k 3 times per week since sept.
When I start trying to loose weight, tracking food to below 1500 cal a day, well balanced, well distributed and all, I find I can't sleep.
I may go tp bed around 11, typically, I may sleep about 2 hours but then I wake up and cant go back to sleep. My legs are restless , I feel itchy, restless.
A really weird feeling.
I try to read, to relax, to listen ti quiet music. Nothing helps.
Last summer, when this started,I thought I was going tru menopause.
I was following a good plan, my weight was slowly dropping, I wasn't hungry but the night were awfull.
After 10 days, I was on vacation, I was starting to become desperate from lack of sleep.
I would fall back asleep around 4 to 10, so it was livable.
One night, I ate a piece of cheese and a piece of bread and within 30 min. I was asleep.
I've tried many time to decrease intake below 1800 calories and the same thing happens.
I'd like to have more info about cortisol levels at night to see if it could explain it and how I can prevent this
It happenend again recently when I was trying to go with a glycemc load approach. I ''backtracked ''my food the next day and was surprised about how many calories I actually ate.
I am not trying to loose quickly so I don't understand this Report
Once I make my mind up, I want the end result yesterday! So making my small changes at times drives me crazy as I don't see the results. I look at my spark streaks to see my progress. Slowly I'm learning. Report
I can see how maybe making drastic changes all at once can lead to more stress. The gradual change is probably better for not only keeping from giving up but also from avoiding too much stress over the issue. Report
I agree with ALYFITN, in that these results, at best, need additional scientific testing...and shame on Sparkpeople for reporting such findings as truth when they are so poorly researched, and not corroborated. Report
This was really surprising! I think it's balanced out, though, by the fact that my stress (cortisol) levels were high when I was overweight because I was constantly wondering what others were thinking about me. Report
Seeing the weight come off is less stressful than keeping it on. Report
i tend to agree with a couple of you there is a psycologocal link between tell someone their caloric intake is being reduce and not telling them. When i decide to eat more "whole food" the calories intake automatically reduced and i was unaware of it until i started to log all my food and their calories. This was a time of discovery for me and now that i have said that maybe i should just stop listening to articles and go back to the way i was eating before i created all of this new stress all by myself Report
Losing weight is tough. Basically everything is against you... Report
I'm not finding it stressful, but time consuming. It takes a lot of planning to get the most food for your caloric intake for the day. Then the time it takes to track the food eaten, but it is a must if I am to be successful this time around. Common sense tells me the proper amount of food, but my brain tells me it's not full and to eat more. So track I will and I love the nutrition feedback every day which helps keep me on track even better. Report
I was on a 1200 calorie eating plan and I really didn't find it stressful to maintan. I was doing alot more excercising than in the past though and it kept suggesting that I raise my calorie intake. even on the 1200 I was amazed how much food I could eat to reach it. I'm not on 1280-1600 and sometimes I eat close to the 1600 range but more often then not I eat less than that and I don't find it a struggle at all. Report
Any change causes stress. Now, stress is not always bad. Sometimes it keeps us on our toes. Managing the stress is the problem, not the change. Report
This does not surprize me one bit. In fact, I do agree ! I think people who cut their calories too low DO increase their stress levels. I've found that people who go on "diets" tend to be really miserable because they aren't taking in enough calories.

Of course, the problem is that we've been taught that the only way to lose weight is to starve ourselves. Which is wrong. Starving doesn't work. As this study now proves, eating too little increases our stress. which is no good.

Personally, I've become a firm believer in eating as a means to lose weight. Quality of the food over quantity.
One thing I'd differentiate right away is that eating more healthfully (more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, more dairy, etc.) may be less calories but is not the same as decreasing calories! That I no longer go to fast food restaurants is not stressful, despite saving myself 600+ calories by eating an apple or popcorn or something else instead. Report
Seeing this article is somewhat of a relief. Although I am eating plenty there are many times I feel hungry when I don't think I should. As an emotional eater I have always assumed it was in my mind and have scolded myself for feeling hungry. Who new there was a real physiological reason. Although it probably won't make the hunger go away, at least I know it is not all in my mind and will be easier on myself. Report
I agree, I think trying to lose weight stresses me out, afraid I'll not get there, fast enough. That is so silly. It's not about dieting, in the first place, it is about healthy eating, and exercise. I'll get there, and shouldn't be looking at is as a race. Report
Even though I eat fewer calories I'm actually eating more food because I go for lower calories, higher bulk foods now. I always want the most 'bang for my buck' so to speak. I want as much food as I can get to trick my body into thinking that it's not starving. So, lowering calories actually lowers my stress because I'm not stressing over the crap food I'm eating and I'm eating healthier. Report
As a personal observation I'm sure my stress level has gone done since changing my lifestyle. I no longer consume caffine, and I have energy to burn by exercise so I have release for my stress. Report
The difference between the title of this blog (intended to attract attention but just a titch misleading) and the most honest sentence in it: "It's not as simple as saying cutting calories was the only reason for the increase of cortisol levels in this study, but it's an interesting theory to explore further," is one reason I don't generally like blogs. More bling than serious content too often.

'Stress' is the body's way of dealing with change. Some of the methods are positive long-term, others not, but 'stress' isn't the culprit any more than 'food' is.

Having said that, I wonder if the results would have been different if there had been a group whose calorie intake was reduced--but they didn't know about it? Or, conversely, if a group THOUGHT their calorie intake was reduced, but it wasn't? Then it might be clearer just what the psychosomatic component in this particular stress/diet relationship might be. Report