Is Stress Making You Fat?

You know the feeling. You're scrambling to prepare for an early morning meeting, there is a stack of bills on the kitchen counter, maybe the kids are playing kickball in the house and you're already anticipating the costs of replacing a broken window, when suddenly, you need an old-fashioned donut. In fact, you'd gladly take four of them. Life throws us many curveballs, but have you considered that your cravings for junk food may be a direct result from the stress in your life? Stress impacts our mood, productivity, and performance — and it is also one of the greatest contributors to abdominal obesity if food is used as a distraction when the going gets tough.

How Stress Affects Your Body

Chronic stress causes a production of the hormone cortisol in the body that depletes your energy and causes a blood sugar imbalance that leaves you craving high-fat, sugary foods.  The calories in these foods are stored as fatty deposits in your abdomen and they send a signal to the brain telling it to relax because the fat can quickly be converted to energy if there is a shortage. Unfortunately, this extra energy is never utilized, and the fat remains long after the stress has dissipated.

How Stress Affects Your Mind

Stress can have wide-reaching effects on your mood and behavior that last long after the episode that triggered the response. Studies have shown that chronic stress can alter the way the brain is wired, causing long term effects on mental health, such as a change in sexual drive, social withdrawal, lack of focus, and irritability or anger. The chemicals released in the body during stressful times have also been shown to restrict higher-level thinking in favor of reactive tendencies, like angry outbursts and emotional eating.

Signs of Stress-Induced Eating

Do you eat more when you're feeling stressed, and continue to eat after you are full? Does food make you feel safe when life seems out of control? Do you eat to calm your nerves when you are anxious, sad, mad, or just bored? If you find yourself relying on a Red Bull when you feel tired, reaching for your secret stash of chocolate when you feel pressured, or find it difficult to stop yourself from overindulging in treats, you may be a stressed-out snacker. Once you can recognize that food is a scapegoat in your life, you can find other ways to break the cycle and confront overwhelming emotions.    

Short-Term Relief From Stress

For immediate relief, laughter, exercise, meditation, hot baths, and even sex, all stimulate the same area of the brain that make us crave comfort food, and may minimize your reaction to stress in the first place. Stock up on simple and fun mood elevators for your home or office, such as a scalp massager, portable basketball hoop, or magnetic Buckyballs. Load your smartphone with your favorite songs and comedy skits, and simply take a walk when you're feeling overwhelmed. Both nature and sunlight can be powerful weapons against stress, helping you to feel exhilarated from the fresh air and warm light and removed from the things that cause you stress.

How to End the Cycle

Emotional hunger can't be satiated with food. If your stress levels and cravings persist, keep a journal and log the situations and emotions that are causing you to indulge. Seek social support from close friends or family to give yourself an outlet to express your emotions. Learning how to effectively communicate your thoughts will not only strengthen the bonds within your circle, it will help you to react appropriately to situations that may otherwise be a source of stress in your life. Overcoming stress can have many positive effects, including increased energy, self-confidence, and a renewed sense of purpose and willingness to seek challenges. Instead of tearing open a bag of M&M's the next time you see your mother-in-law's name on caller ID, put your energy toward addressing your negative emotions without food to reduce your cravings and regain control of your life. 


Sarah Dalton is the founder of Able Mind Able Body, a Las Vegas based company offering motivational lifestyle coaching and personal training services.  She takes a holistic approach to healthy living, and educates others on the benefits of nutrition, exercise, and emotional health.  Visit for more information.