Stress and Weight Loss – How Does One Affect the Other?

Stress often has a direct impact on weight. Some people under certain stressful situations gain weight; others lose weight. The situations themselves can affect whether a person experiences weight gain or weight loss. 

Binge-eating, loss of appetite, poor food choices, and missed meals are the most common ways that stress affects weight. But it can also directly disrupt the body’s internal functioning, causing sleep-loss or even an upset stomach. 

For people who are trying to lose weight, understanding how stress may also factor into their weight-loss plan is important. 

Stress and Weight Loss - How Does One Affect the Other?

Stress and Weight Gain

When the body is under stress, levels of the hormone cortisol – also known as the stress hormone – increases. Cortisol initiates the breakdown of glucose from stored fat; this serves the purpose of providing you with additional energy for quick use. In addition to increased blood glucose levels, cortisol also raises heart rate. These mechanisms are part of the body’s fight-or-flight response which prepares itself for a potentially demanding or dangerous situation. 

There are two ways by which increased cortisol levels from chronic stress can lead to weight gain. One, the release of energy can increase appetite; and two, the unused glucose (which often happens when stress does not actually make you literally get up and go) is restored as fat – usually as abdominal fat. 

Some people also handle stress through emotional eating. The behavior is not only associated with loneliness, anxiety, or depression. Emotional eating can also occur when you are happy or excited. If you are prone to eating unhealthy foods every time your emotions get high, it is also highly likely that you’ll turn to food when you are stressed. And if you suffer from chronic stress, your coping mechanism will lead to weight gain. 

Stress and Weight Loss

For some people, the same physiological reactions their body has to stress can cause them to lose weight instead of gaining it. 

The body’s “acute stress response” of increasing cortisol levels also suppresses certain physiological functions that are considered nonessential during a crisis – this includes the digestive system. As a result, gastrointestinal discomfort often further leads to stomach pain

heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, and even irritable bowel syndrome when the stress is chronic. Such gastrointestinal issues can make you eat less and lose weight, or your body may have difficulty digesting food and absorbing nutrients. 

Acute or chronic stress may be so all-consuming that it takes over your life and make it difficult for you to focus on other tasks or remember them – including eating. You may also have difficulty sleeping, staying asleep, or having good quality sleep. Or, perhaps, you’re prone to nervous movements such as foot-tapping, or hyperactivity which can make you exercise more frequently and intensely than normal when you’re under stress. All of these, combined or individually, can lead to weight loss, especially when you experience them for a prolonged period. 

Stress and Weight Loss - How Does One Affect the Other?

Stress and Weight Loss – When Should You Be Concerned?

Stress-related weight loss is normal if you only lose a few pounds. But excessive weight loss, about five percent or more of your overall body weight within a period of 6 to 12 months, is cause for concern. 

Whether or not you’re following a weight-loss plan, losing too much weight as a result of stress is not a good thing. Prolonged weight loss can take a serious toll on your body. You should see a doctor if your weight loss is accompanied by chronic headaches, chest pain, and/or nervousness or irritability.  

How Can You Eat Healthy When Under Stress?

Remember that maintaining healthy weight loss should involve healthy habits. Your overall well-being should not suffer from weight loss. Likewise, too much weight gain from stress can also lead to unhealthy eating and health issues. If stress is affecting your eating habits, there are steps you can take to stay healthy. 

  • If you’re prone to missing or forgetting meals when you’re stressed, set alarms to remind you. 
  • Keep your blood glucose levels in check by sticking to a regular eating schedule and eating small, healthy meals throughout the day. A few nibbles of high-protein or high-fiber snacks in between meals will also help. 
  • Avoid caffeine and unnecessary sugar when you’re feeling stressed. Eating something sugary will give you an energy and mood boost, but you’ll feel worse when you come down from the “sugar high.”
  • Avoid foods that are high in fat and/or sodium as they can worsen your stress and its effects. 
  • If you’re too stressed to prepare your own food, check out the pre-made meals at your local supermarket instead of buying fast food. The pre-packaged salads at the fresh foods section are a great option. 
  • If you like to exercise to cope with stress, don’t forget to eat a healthy snack after. 
Stress and Weight Loss - How Does One Affect the Other?

Stress and Weight Loss – Final Thoughts

In times of mental stress, it might be best to give yourself a break – some time to relax both your body and mind. Counting calories, keeping up with your workout routine, and monitoring your weight are tasks that you can hold off on, especially if weight concerns only make you feel more stressed. 

Even if you can properly manage your eating habits while under stress, it’s also important to keep your stress under control. You can do this by getting to the root cause of your stress. If you know the factors that contribute to your stress, then you’ll be able to take steps to avoid them or to figure out how to handle them so that they do not negatively impact your overall well-being and your life. 

A lifelong commitment to health and wellness can be a difficult journey, with or without stress. But with the right mindset and strategy, you can make this commitment every single day. Check out Modern Fit‘s customized plans to help you get started!

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