How Chronic Stress Impacts Our Weight

Shandra Martinez

| 4 min read

For some people, stressful times and food go hand-in-hand. An especially rough day at work might mean an extra serving of comfort food for dinner. On days when family drama is high, some people might seek out their favorite drive-thru combo meal as a guilty pleasure. Others reach for candy, chips or an extra glass of wine to soothe them when things feel like too much. But when stress becomes chronic and food is a person’s go-to response, it can impact weight in a noticeable way.

The connection between stress and overeating

When people feel stressed, it’s not likely their food wish list includes grilled fish, brown rice and vegetables. They are going to gravitate more toward sugary and fatty foods as a coping mechanism, said Shanthi Appelö, a registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
“We get this kind of reward to our brain pathways when we have foods that make us feel a certain way,” Appelö said. “So it tells us, ‘Hey, this was a really good idea.’ It’s going to release dopamine. And in that way it will tell us, ‘Hey, I’m relieving stress for a little bit by having that food.’ But obviously it’s not a solution.”
Some people lean into drinking more alcohol when they’re dealing with stress. But all this sipping - whether it’s wine, liquor or beer - can add up when you step on the scale. “Maybe someone who’s having a lot of stress will drink alcohol … maybe have five more beverages a week. Those calories can really add up when we think of something like even one and a half ounces of vodka is 100 calories, and that’s without any sugar or fat added to that drink. So those kinds of things can add up, too.”

How stress impacts appetite and cravings

Chronic stress and bad eating habits can become a vicious cycle that’s tied to our biology. When people battle long term stress, their body releases cortisol, a hormone that affects appetite. It can make people crave sugary and fatty foods - the type of meals that typically translate into extra fat around a person’s midsection.

How someone with stress can establish healthy eating habits

Being mindful about what’s going on with your body - and your reactions - is a good first step when it comes to breaking the stress eating cycle. Here are some tips that can help you establish healthy habits:
Prep for stressful weeks. If you know you have a jam-packed week ahead, do a little prep work on Sundays to make and store some foods that will be convenient for you to grab when you’re in a hurry. Cut up vegetables, grill some chicken or other lean meats, and make a batch of brown rice or other cooked grains. Keep fresh fruits on hand for snacking.
Schedule time for exercise. Working out can be a good stress-buster. It also releases endorphins that make us feel better.
Don’t skimp on sleep. Getting quality sleep is a big part of the equation for people trying to manage chronic stress. Sleep contributes to good health. Being fatigued can trigger the release of cortisol, which starts the craving cycle for sugary and fatty foods.
Eat foods that help reduce inflammation. There’s a theory that reducing inflammation in the body can help lower cortisol levels and stress responses. Adding anti-inflammatory foods into the diet is one way to do that. Some of these include fatty fish like salmon, nuts, flax seeds and chia seeds. Creating more healthy gut bacteria can also help reduce inflammation in the body.
“If we feed our gut the right things, we can help reduce inflammation and thereby some of these hormones associated with stress,” Appelö said. “So giving our body things like Greek yogurt, that’s going to have those healthy bacteria, and those really fiber-rich foods that have those prebiotics that can help the bacteria have something to feed off of, like raspberries. So feeding ourselves things like that can be a good idea.”
Want to learn more about the mind-body connect? Listen to this episode of “A Healthier Michigan Podcast” featuring a conversation with Shanthi Appelö, a registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
Photo credit: Getty Images

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