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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I wonder if cortisol levels increase with any reduction (below maintenance level) of calories. If that's the case, then we can probably counter it through stress-reduction techniques, such as relaxation or meditation, until the body becomes "acclimated" to its new caloric level. Report
Having been extremely heavy most of my life and having tried all the popular diets out there with limited success, I am now committed to SP and don't find it stressful at all. Because of the career I have chosen, my daily life is normally stressful but I finally feel in control of my life with the changes I am beginning to use with my SP program. Report
I have some criticisms with this study merely as someone who has learned some basics about designing experiments in Biology and Psychology courses in college. First of all, there were only 121 participants, and they were divided into four groups of 30. That is far too small a sampling size, and probably would not translate to data that is going to be accurate for a wider group of people. Furthermore, they cut down the amount of calories consumed daily to 1200 calories, but they did not state how many calories the participants were eating daily before the study or any information about the participants' height or weight. Without this information, we can't make the judgment that dieting alone causes cortisol to increase. People who had not been paying attention to their diet before the study could have easily been overeating significantly every day. I imagine there is probably a big difference hormonally between a person who eats 2,000-2,200 calories a day dropping to 1,200 and a person who eats 1,500-1,700 calories a day dropping to 1,200. But we don't know which of these examples took place, or if it was both. Also, we don't know if 1,200 calories was even within a healthy calorie range for these individuals or if that would put them into starvation mode. If you're 5"3', you can just barely get away with eating 1,200 calories, however that on the lower end of average or upper end of short for women. Unless the participants were all short women, it's likely that they were not all eating within a healthy range. I'm certain that if anyone attempted to eat below a healthy eating range they would see plenty of negative side effects beyond stress hormones increasing. So I would not take this study as being applicable to many beyond their participants. Report
It just shows that making very small lifestyle changes is the way to go, not starting a diet. I found starting Sparkpeople to be so NOT stressful. Report
I like Amber512's comment. So smart, do what works for you, but do something! Report
Did a little reseach, the study included 99 women. On average the dieters lost 2 pounds in 3 weeks. But wait a minute, the non-dieters gained 2 and 1/2 pounds in the same three weeks.
Wish we knew how to find them so we could introduce them to Sparkpeople! Report
Cutting back on calories can stress the body out, does not surprise me at all! I tend to go back and forth each day. Eating between 1300-1600 one day and the next eating between 1700-2000. It gives my body some calories and my weekly calories are actually less than they used to be because I'm not craving things as much. Report
Here is an example of diet stress: A sister of my Facebook friend lost 60 pounds in 4 1/2 months, a little fast, yes? And lost most of her hair. Now maintaining but trying to grow the hair back. Slow and steady wins the race! Report
I think anytime you shake your body out of old habits and start trying to develop new ones, the body's reaction is stress. Slow and easy wins the race. Report
makes a lot of sense, changing habits slowly instead of abruptly is easier on many levels. Report
For me, since my goals are health oriented, the changes I am making actually take stress away. The stress comes in when I really blow it so I just let it go and move on with as little added stress as possible. Stress can lead to overeating for me so one of my goals is to do a daily pep talk with some meditation in the evening and that seems to really help a lot and keep me motivated. Report
In my life stress does play a part. I do know it's a life style change and not a diet. I get that and I try to live that. But for me some of it's so confusing. One person says this about weight training and someone says something completly different. No two people have the same idea about a life style change and what it means. So I do what is best for me. Report
With Spark I've been doing small changes in my diet,that I Can Live with life long. I truly believe stress can lead to wt gain (some to loss) Need to live in the positive as much as we can. Report
There are a lot of things that happen in our lives included on the stress list however, it's all in attitude. If you feel stressful, go for a walk, count your blessings, recognize it is, what it is and deal with it with the resources you have, prayer, talking with a friend or a doctor. When it comes to "dieting" it's a life change experience for the better. Report
Maybe true, but Spark Lifestyle Change is not really a diet. Look at all the "stress relieving"elements. Blogs,email, exercises, and on and on. I've been "chunky" since I was 10, with occasional (and short lived) periods of svelt, grumpy and hungry. Finally, I am on my way to firm, fit, and happy. It's not the counting calories that counts, it's the PROGRAM. Report
I did not findSpark to be anywhere near as stressful compared to other diets. I was stressed when others weighed me in public. I overheard how hard their lives were when others were talking to them and offering unsolicited advice. With Spark I am confident I am able to get expert advice. Spark people is such a one on one comfort zone with my spark fiends. We can have public conversations and private conversations. I find this private sharing to be a great comfort in my life. Pat in Maine. Report
The study is poorly designed and does not test the stated hypothesis. The hypothesis is that restriction of caloric intake is ineffective because it increases psych stress and cortisol production. The results showed increased cortisol production as measured for only 2 days following 3 weeks of restricting calories. There is increase in self-reported stress from tracking and restriction as well.
So what? There is a BIG jump from their actual results to a hypothesis testing EFFECTIVENESS.
Who funds such garbage?

Sample size is also small – 30 participants in each of 4 groups. This is a bad study.
Surviving on 1000-1200 calories always makes me edgy, but I find this is less true with the Spark Diet. I'm sure that's because there are so many choices and I feel like I'm really in charge of what I eat. Report
The stress/guilt in counting calories is why I have banished the word "diet" from my vocabulary. I do log my food, but try to forgive myself for a bad all starts over again tomorrow, and most bad days do not make much of a difference as long as one continues to steadily adjust their habits. I have also found that, prior to Sparkpeople, I tried to lose weight by reducing calories to a very small number...I have learned that it does not work. Report
I thought of dieting as "taking charge" and being proactive, but I never thought of it as stressful. Now that you mention it ...
Thanks for this article. It's an eye-opener.
There are some interesting things to consider... if it was only calorie cutting that was done in the study the participants missed the "de-stressing" benefits of exercise, and R & R "on purpose" which is (in my humble opinion) key to making a lifestyle change and not just going on a diet. Could have the side effect of helping reduce cortisol - maybe... Report
I agree. Report
Cortisol!! My worst enemy.
Exercise! My weapon against it.
Slow nutrition changes is the rhythm for me to keep the enemy asleep...
Thanks for sharing and remindin me of!!
This seems to be just another in a long list of "obstacles" as to why it is difficult for many people to lose weight. Report
You know, this is so interesting. It really explains a lot. Thanks for sharing it! Report
With the No S Diet (see the SparkTeam for more info) (it's not really a diet) you do not experience this problem. Built-in portion control and weight loss are there, but so is a system you can do every day for the rest of your life with no deprivation, counting, tracking, weighing, obsessing, etc. This article points out some of the downsides of cutting cals & dieting. With the No S Diet, your body and mind (and hormones and cortisol) do NOT get the message, psychosomatically or otherwise, that you're on a diet. Report
Cortisol will absolutely stall weight loss. Report
Tracking my food and exercise routine on SP has helped me tremendously. I have finally after 6 years began to lose instead of gain weight. Before I was trying to cut out foods for the sake of a diet, now I am adding fruits and veges for the sake of eating better. Report
I feel this is true.ifind myself stressing harder on the weekend to stay in my range even though during the week i do fine. I try to give myself at least one free dayto eat what ever i like. Trying to stay away from fried foods but it's hard to do being a southern girl. Report
Since I have been on SP I have stated in blogs and on my comments that I am doing this slow...I wrote a blog about "It is not a race.." I feel if I do this by taking time and continued effort I will get to my goal. I'd rather go slow and keep the weight off than do it fast and regain. Report
I know this is so true, but is it wrong to stick with my diet, track everything, 6 days a wk, but on Sunday, eat what ever I want. Would that help relieve stress? Was thinking, 6 days of healthy eating is far better than what I was doing. Just not sure if it will help or hurt me in the long run... Report
Great info! I have to agree with the article. I tried a FAD diet last month. It was basically a shake for breakfast, lunch and supper with one cup of fruit and one cup of veggies. 1st day was horrible. After lunch I could hardly funtion at work and my stress level felt very high. I was getting grumpy and could not think effectively. By supper time I had a huge headache. Needless to say I ate supper and it was an awesome meal. Never again the FAD diets. Report
I so agree with this. Those fad diets tend to make normal everyday people turn into not so normal and extremely stressed people. Thanks for the info! Report
I've suspected this for a long time. Anytime I try to eat healthier and track what I eat, I feel stressed and binge. I restarted SP this week and am up 2 pounds. Hopefully if I keep presisting the scale will go the other way... Report
I've only been here about a month, but I have definatly noticed that different days and weeks I have had very different hunger levels! Some day 1250 calories works for me and some days there would be no way!!! I've had several times where I was done trtacking and I ate a few things atter that and I'm still losing! Also I think part of this senarios sucess is do to calorie " cycling' Therefore I don't think there are enough constants do get completely acurate results. Report
Keeping track of the food you eat is the only way I have been able to lose. I see what I eat. Only then can I make changes to help myself. I totally agree that you need to make changes within your food likes and dislikes taking into concideration of foods you're not able to eat. I have always maintained that a person that loses slowly, will keep it off longer and more easily. Slow and steady wins the race (gets you to your goal!) Report
This is true! Before, I was never hungry though I probably ate a lot of the wrong things whether or not a consumed an adequate amount of calories or not. Now that I focus on eating the proper amounts of nutritious, healthful foods, I seem to have a better apetite, or, in other words, I'm hungry a lot of the time because of the focus on watching my intake. The saving grace is I'm able to stay busy most of the time and focus on other activities. Nevertheless, I have found that I'm more often feeling hungry these days. I'm below my weight goal but my waist continues to shrink!!!! Report
This is why I didn't cut my calories to 1200, I started with 1700-1800 and then slowly cut some every week, now I'm eating 1300-1400, and I don't plan to eat 1200 any time soon. I choose to exercise more so I can eat more, because then I don't feel hungry all the time. Maybe one day someday 1200 will work fine for me, but not now, so I don't stress about that and just do more cardio. Report
Good questions Shinako. I also wonder how much of a daily calorie decrease it was for people - if some of them were used to eating around 1500 per day, and some were used to 2500 per day, it doesn't seem a fair test to have them all decreased to 1200. Its an interesting study, but I think it needs to be redone with some changes for the results to be more meaningful. Report
I've got a couple of concerns with this study. I did not read it all, just the abstract- if anyone wants to correct me on a few points, please do!

First, the study doesn't mention what the calorie intake of the dieters was BEFORE the dietary changes- if you're going from a 2,000calorie+ diet down to a stringent 1,200 calorie diet, your body's going to be in shock, no ifs ands, or buts. Yes, the tests were done before the study, and then again after 3 weeks. HOWEVER, most people here on SparkPeople know that heavier people NEED more fuel to lose weight with, not just 1,200 calories. Maybe 1,500, maybe 1,700.. nowhere near where they WERE at, but definitely not low enough so that the subjects are "running on fumes," as it were.

Second, all we know (from the abstract) about those surveyed was that they were females. What kinds of situations did they come from? How many did this because they needed the survey money? The sample isn't "mixed" enough, in my opinion.

Third, based on the Objective of the study: "Objective: To test the hypothesis that dieting, or the restriction of caloric intake, is ineffective..." I'd be willing to wager that perhaps the test was set up to reach a conclusion in line with the hypothesis. Report
I agree as well. When I used to 'diet' and try to fit this mold of 1200-1500 calories, I'd be so hungry all the time and would only focus on what I couldn't eat. Now, I've been eating 1900-2300 calories a day and losing weight. Have I cut some things out of my life? Yes. I don't drink soda, diet soda or alcohol anymore. This time, I've felt less stress and more happiness and success. Report
I agree. Dieting, fad diets in general, is stressful. It is all about making gradual changes that you can live with. The weight didn't pile on over night, and it's not going to go off that way either! Report