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How to Lose Weight Gained from Stress

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You’ve been hitting the gym big time lately. As far as you’re concerned, this time you will lose the weight, improve your physique and make positive lifestyle changes.

Every session so far has been pretty much pedal to the metal – you’ve been strength training regularly and racking up interval after interval. You’re sweating and out of breath every time you hit the gym.

The way you see it is like this – if you work maximally in the gym, the fat will just fall off.

But why isn’t your weight coming down?

Could it be down to the late nights, mental fatigue, the constant nagging by your boss or the stress of fitting everything into an already jam-packed day?

In this article we’ll take a look at the link between stress and weight.

How do you lose weight gained from stress? We find out…

Stress and weight gain: The relationship

From a purely physiological point of view, weight loss is simple – take in less calories than you burn off each day and your body will sacrifice some of its stored fat to make up the difference.

But that’s a pretty reductionist view, because it doesn’t take into account all of the factors that influence how many calories we eat each day.

Can stress cause weight gain?

Although energy balance obeys the laws of thermodynamics, it doesn’t take into account the many things that make you your own person.

So whilst it knows what to do with calories one they enter your body, it doesn’t know why you’re eating them or what drives you to make the food choices you do. 

And stress seems to be one of the biggest factors that influences what and how much you eat.

A report in the International Journal of Obesity [1] found a relationship between job strain and body mass.

And similar results were reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology [2] where a significant relationship between job-related demands and body mass was reported in women and men. Other contributing stress factors included:

  • Lack of decision authority
  • Difficulty paying bills
  • Lack of job skills
  • Perceived constraints in life
  • Family and relationship strain

Woman trying to button up her jeans but can't

Key Point: there is a clear relationship between stress and higher body mass in both men and women.

Why does stress cause weight gain?

As we know, the only way you’ll add fat and weight to your body is by eating too many calories. So it isn’t stress itself that makes you fat, but its ability to make you overeat.


Stress can make you feel hungry more often

Stress can have a negative effect on the way in which your hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis effects energy regulation – in particular your appetite [3].

In times of stress, your body triggers various chemical and hormonal changes. You pump more epinephrine into your bloodstream and levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise dramatically.

And chronic cortisol flowing around your body effects a very important hormone called leptin. This particular hormone regulates your appetite, so when cortisol knocks it out of whack, you feel hungry more often – it tricks your brain into thinking you need more calories, even when you don’t [4].

You crave comfort foods

Not only does the shift in leptin mean you want to eat more, it can also have an effect on the types of foods you want to ‘hunt’.

When you’re stressed your body tries to seek out the most ‘bang for your buck’ foods – and that means high sugar and fat meals that are chock-full of calories.

One study reported that in times of stress, “humans turn to hyperpalatable comfort foods such as fast food, snacks, and calorie-dense foods even in the absence of hunger” [5].

You don’t sleep as well

Finally (but by no means the least important), you just don’t sleep as well when you’re stressed.

And a lack of sleep can also spike your cortisol – particularly in the early evening when you’re more likely to sneak in a few calorie-packed treat foods.

Restriction studies show that even short-term lack of sleep can cause metabolic and endocrine alterations such as decreased glucose tolerance, decreased insulin sensitivity, increased evening concentrations of cortisol, increased levels of ghrelin (another hormone that regulates hunger), decreased levels of leptin and increased hunger and appetite [6].

Stress can affect where you store fat too

When cortisol increases, it had a direct effect on where excess body fat as stored – pushing it towards the abdominal area [7].

The result?

Stress increases cortisol > Cortisol makes you hungry > Hunger causes overeating > Overeating increases fat storage > Cortisol pushes excess calories towards belly fat.

Unhappy woman eating cereal

How do you lose weight gained from stress

If there are specific reasons why stress has lead to to gain weight it makes sense that there are also specific strategies you can put in place to lose it again.

And that’s true. Here are the best ways to drop stress-related fat.

#1. Exercise doesn’t have to be maximal

Although you think you might need to crank up some bike intervals until you throw up, you don’t need to work all-out each time you hit the gym when it comes to fat loss – particularly if you’re already stressed out.

Much like psychological stress, intense exercise will also increase your cortisol levels, adding to the problem you’re already facing.

Adding in some stress-busting activities like Yoga or walking might not burn a lot of calories, but they’ll soon have you relaxing your way to lower cortisol levels – and then you can begin to sneak more intense exercise in.

#2. Don’t follow a restrictive diet

Trying to follow a diet that is not only low in calories but low in food choices will add to your stress. It’ll contribute to low mood and negative associations with food – and before you know it you’ve broken, raided the snack drawer and you feel even more stressed out.

Following a flexible diet works well when you’re stressed. That means using your calories wisely when you’re in a calorie deficit. If you really fancy that chocolate waffle and you’ve got 300 kcal left for that day then eat it – and don’t feel guilty.

Just don’t go over your calorie intake and you’ll still drop fat. Just remember, it’s not an excuse to eat junk all day, it’s just a little pick-me-up to boost your mood.

#3. Breathe

Yeah, yeah we know – you breathe already.

But taking time to sit quietly and take deep, purposeful breaths when you get a few minutes can do wonders for your relaxation.

When you breathe in your heart rate begins to increase. And when you breathe out it slows down. This is linked to a mechanism called heart rate variability (HRV).

So focusing on long, relaxed breaths helps you to slow your heart rate and put the brakes on cortisol production. It’s your body’s built in stress-buster.

#4. Work out your emotional eating triggers

Once you realize that stressful situations can cause you to overeat, you’ll realize how important it is to avoid them (or at least set up coping mechanisms to deal with them).

The chances are that you’re not hungry, your body just wants instant gratification. Rewarding yourself with a physical activity, a hobby or a low-calorie alternative works just as well.

Emotional eating can be your body’s reaction to feeling deprived, so create new ways to reward yourself is key.

Beautiful red-haired young woman happily eating a slice of pizza


Stress can contribute towards weight gain by altering the way that your brain perceives hunger, pleasure and the type of foods you crave.

But knowing this can help you to put strategies in place to lose the stress-related weight gain for good.

Choosing the right type of exercise, following more flexible dieting and being aware of emotional triggers that cause overeating are just some of the changes you can make.


  1. Kivimäki, M et al. Work stress, weight gain and weight loss: evidence for bidirectional effects of job strain on body mass index in the Whitehall II study. Int J Obesity. 2006; 30: 982-987
  2. Block, JP et al. Psychosocial Stress and Change in Weight Among US Adults. Am J Epidemiol. 2009; 170(2):181-192
  3. Bose, M et al. Stress and obesity: the role of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis in metabolic disease. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2009; 16(5): 340-346
  4. Leal-Cerro, A et al. Influence of corticol status on leptin secretion. Pituitary. 2001; 4(1-2): 111-6
  5. Ya, YHC et al. Stress and eating behaviours. Minerva endocrinol. 2013; 38(3): 255-267
  6. Leproult, R et al. Role of Sleep and Sleep Loss in Hormonal Release and Metabolism. Endocr Dev. 2010; 17: 11–21
  7. Moyer, AE et al. Stress-induced cortisol response and fat distribution in women. Obes Res. 1994; 2(3): 255-62