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Understanding the Connection Between Stress and Weight Gain

Monica McCafferty, MS, CNS

Published in Stress

8 min read

March 8, 2023
a woman measuring her waist
a woman measuring her waist

Stress can have many implications for your physical health. It has been known to cause stomach problems, sleep problems, headaches, muscle tension, and fatigue.

Having chronic stress can also lead to conditions such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. But did you know that your stress levels may also be connected to your weight?

In this article, we’ll take a look at the relationship between stress and weight gain, some stress-induced habits to avoid, and tips on how to reduce stress in your life. Read on to learn more about the connection between stress and weight gain. 

How Stress and Weight Gain are Connected (and Why)

a woman holding her temples

Our bodies are constantly responding to external and internal stressors, but not all stressors are harmful. It’s all about the timing and the amount. For example, physical activity and exercise are forms of stress, but in the right dose, they can be helpful and even allow you to improve things like bone and lean muscle mass. 

However, pushing your body too hard with exercise that is more intense than you can handle can lead to stress-induced injury and even reduced immune function and unhealthy changes in hormones.

When we are young, we are often exposed to stressors in the form of pathogens from the outside world. This exposure helps build our immune system by training it to recognize and respond to future infections—a potentially beneficial stressor. 

However, when most of us talk about stress we are likely talking about psychological stress resulting from emotional sources, such as trouble at work, problems in interpersonal relationships, or social pressures. Even though these mental health stressors don’t always put our bodies in immediate danger, we are hardwired to respond as if there is a real threat. 

Studies show that this psychological stress is connected to weight gain. The exact reason why is unclear, but there are a few possible causes. 

For one, stress may contribute to changes in someone’s diet, which may lead to weight gain. Another potential reason involves the hormone cortisol, which is released by the body in stressful situations. 

Stress and Cortisol Levels

a man meditating on top of his bed

When we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, which is responsible for our fight or flight response. This causes the body to release adrenaline, which increases our heart and respiratory rates as well as stress hormone cortisol, which is released from the adrenal glands.

Research shows a strong correlation between high cortisol levels and abdominal obesity over time, though not all obese people have elevated cortisol levels. This may be because some people are more prone to a cortisol stress response than others.

Cortisol is known to cause a redistribution of adipose tissue, or body fat, to the abdominal region. It has also been shown to increase appetite and cravings for high-caloric “comfort foods,” which can result in weight gain. 

Metabolic Rate May be Slowed When the Body is Under Stress

High chronic stress levels may also negatively impact thyroid hormone production and regulation. This may contribute to changes in metabolic rate, among other areas of metabolism.

Research also shows that stress can alter the way our bodies metabolize food, which can make weight loss more difficult. A 2015 study found that women who had experienced stressors in the previous 24 hours burned fewer calories than women who did not experience stress, suggesting that stressful events can slow our metabolic rates. 

Stress-Induced Habits that Promote Weight Gain

habits that may promote weight gain

High levels of cortisol can affect our habits and behavior. Here are some stress-induced habits that may contribute to weight gain


Stress has been shown to increase feelings of hunger or cravings for food. According to research, stress can alter our natural homeostasis, or balance. In response, our bodies can produce physical responses after experiencing stress that aim to regain that balance. 

This often shows itself in the disruption of our eating patterns. For example, in one 2001 study, 59 premenopausal women were exposed to a stress session and a control session on different days. 

Researchers found that the women consumed more calories on the stress day than on the control day. The hormones involved in our stress responses can influence our appetites, our ability to be satiated, and even our food choices.


a skinny girl looking at a plate of food

Research shows that some people actually undereat when they are stressed. It’s unclear exactly why some people overeat and some undereat during times of stress, but it likely relates to the severity and type of stressor.

Plus, everyone’s stress response and body are unique. Unfortunately, undereating can also lead to weight gain, as well as mood changes, energy loss, fatigue, muscle loss, and more. 

Increased Fast Food Consumption

Research shows that a consistently activated stress response can alter our brain reward/motivation pathways. This can cause people to seek hyperpalatable foods, or high fat and sugary foods, and begin stress eating when they are under stress.

Over time, this can also lead to changes in the brain that promote compulsive behaviors such as emotional eating, making it much harder to resist reaching for fast foods that may be unhealthy

Getting Less Sleep

a man laying in bed and falling asleep with a phone in his hand

Stress can affect how well you sleep, increasing sleep disturbances and altering your circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. Studies also show that sleep loss and deprivation may affect your hunger cues by decreasing leptin levels.

Leptin is a hormone that helps maintain body weight by signaling fullness, suppressing hunger, and regulating your energy. Decreased leptin levels can lead to overeating and weight gain. 

Sleep deprivation can also increase ghrelin levels, which is a hormone that stimulates appetite. 

Decreased Physical Activity 

Research shows that stress can lead to a decrease in physical activity and exercise. According to the CDC, physical activity is a crucial component of healthy weight management. 

Exercise can also support healthy blood sugar levels and boost your metabolic rate.

How Do You Know If Your Weight Gain is From Stress?

a woman measuring her waist

There are many factors that come into consideration when it comes to body weight and metabolism. If you are gaining weight and don’t know why, consult with your doctor or qualified health professional.

Here are five tips that you can try using to combat unwanted weight gain.

5 Tips for Dealing with Stress-Related Weight Gain

Everyone’s experience with stress and weight gain is unique and it’s important to listen to your body and find what works best for you. Here are some stress management tips for dealing with stress-related weight gain. 

1) Adopt Mindfulness Activities into Your Daily Routine

a woman meditating in workout clothes

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that involves paying attention to the present moment with openness and acceptance. Studies show that mindfulness may help with stress reduction and anxiety.

Meditation can also lower your heart rate and improve sleep quality, which can help reduce stress. It may also help increase general life satisfaction

2) Get Appropriate Amounts of Physical Activity 

Incorporating regular exercise into your routine can be a great stress reducer. It can release endorphins, improve your mood, and contribute to your overall health and wellbeing.

However, exercise, especially high-intensity exercise, is also a stressor that can contribute to higher cortisol levels. To find out the amount and intensity of exercise that is right for you, consult with your doctor or qualified health professional. 

3) Prioritize Adequate Sleep Habits

a man laying in bed asleep

Studies show that sleep loss can increase cortisol levels, which also increases stress and anxiety. Good sleep habits, also known as sleep hygiene, may help increase your sleep quality. 

Some good sleep habits include:

  • Keeping a consistent sleep schedule
  • Avoiding light-emitting screens, like phones, laptops, and tablets, before bed
  • Keeping your room at a cool and comfortable temperature
  • Avoiding caffeine before bed
  • Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation

4) Eat a Healthy, Nutrient-Dense Diet

When it comes to stress, your diet is important. Food provides fuel for your body, and the nutrients it needs to function. Nutrient imbalances are themselves a type of stress on the body. Research shows that stress can also deplete your body’s nutrients further. 

A diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods can help bring the balance of nutrients you need. Nutrient-rich foods are naturally packed with vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and other nutrients and are minimally processed, without added sugars. 

These include things like:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Fish and seafood
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Unprocessed lean meats or soy products

5) Seek Out and Accept Support from Others

two people having a conversation

Research shows that having a strong social support network increases your resilience to stress. Reaching out and getting support from the people in your life can help you feel less alone.

Talking through your problems with someone you trust may also go a long way in relieving the stress in your life. This includes seeking help from health professionals, like therapists and psychologists. 

6) Practice Self-Love

Practicing self love and self acceptance has been shown to improve emotional wellbeing and may reduce stress. Studies also show that people with low-self esteem have reduced gray matter volume in the regions of the brain that contribute to emotion and stress regulation. 

This can result in difficulty regulating negative emotions, like stress. People with high self esteem tend to have a higher volume of gray matter in these areas. The connection here is a subject of ongoing research.

Being kind to yourself, using positive affirmations, practicing mindfulness, expressing gratitude to yourself, and practicing self care can all help you build self esteem and self acceptance. 

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Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Reviewed by: Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.

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