How Stress Can Cause Weight Gain and Derail Your Weight Loss Goals
I am not a big fan of diets. Study after study has shown that diets don’t work. In fact, they cause weight gain in the long run. One hypothesis for why diets don’t work is that they cause stress – and stress causes weight gain (I’ll explain how later). The very thought of needing to change something about yourself comes from a place of stress. It certainly does not come from a place of calm, contentment. Moreover, your mind sees any kind of change as a threat. The minute you make moves towards the “new you”, mental resistance (some people would say, the ego) tries to maintain the status quo. And when that threat of metamorphosis involves a grumbling stomach, the cues of starvation are sure to send you into survival mode.
Instead of focusing on what you put (or don’t put) into your mouth, turning your attention to stress reduction is a better approach.
What does stress reduction have to do with weight loss? It turns out, everything.
To be clear, a sudden stressful event will initially cause you to lose weight. This makes sense given the fact that stress is designed to mobilize you into action. Your drive to eat will decrease naturally as your body focuses on the emergency at hand.
Unfortunately, much of our modernized stress becomes a chronic, day-to-day affair. As soon as stress goes from an acute event (like an emergency) to a prolonged situation (like financial debt or a struggling relationship), the weight correlation flips. Unlike acute stress, prolonged stress CAUSES weight gain. I personally experienced this phenomenon during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. During the first two weeks of the initial lockdown here in the United States, I lost weight as I reacted to the threat of the virus as one would if a typhoon was heading your way. I moved, prepared, gather supplies, and protect the young and the old (my kid and parents). It wasn’t until it became clear that this pandemic was more of a long game that I started to gain weight. Certainly, I was in closer proximity to my fridge. Certainly, I had more time to eat and snack and eat again. But it was my need to calm myself with comforting food AND my decreased metabolism due to pandemic-related stress that really packed on the pounds. As Herman Pontzer, PhD, the author of BURN puts it:
Emotional and psychological stress, as well as physical stress like sleep deprivation, can cause dysregulation in our neural reward systems that can lead to overeating. Our brains can also learn to substitute food reward for the emotional and psychological rewards we crave when we’re feeling isolated, scared, or sad.
Hello? “Isolated, scared, or sad”? That pretty much sums up my pandemic experience. You?
Part of the 180-degree shift that occurs as stress goes from stimulating weight loss to encouraging weight gain is due, in part, to the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, in addition to behavioral changes that occur in response to stress.
Chronic Stress Causes Inflammation
Cortisol starts out as an anti-inflammatory hormone only to become inflammatory over time. That inflammation does two things; it alters your gut microbiome, making it more difficult to digest and metabolize food and it increases your likelihood of physical injury and pain. Even if the inflammation doesn’t cause an injury, it most certainly will slow you down and minimize your motivation to move your body.
Cortisol Inhibits Sex Hormone Production
Increases in cortisol also has the effect of decreasing sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone, mainly). There seems to be a balanced relationship between cortisol and sex hormones within the body. When one goes up, the other goes down. Stress, therefore, leads to decreases in testosterone and estrogen. Ask a menopausal woman what that ultimately does to her body! This phenomenon not only explains why women going through menopause experience weight gain but also why they tend to feel like they are under more stress than their younger counterparts. (For more information on Stress and Menopause check out this article I wrote).
Changes in Sugar Metabolism
Stress also alters your ability to metabolize sugar by dysregulating your insulin sensitivity, something called “insulin resistance”. The link between insulin resistance and stress was discovered back in 2010 and several studies have since supported the association. In extreme cases, stress can lead to Type II Diabetes. In moderate cases, the effect is more subtle and your ability to utilize the sugar dump that stress facilitates is hampered.
Stress Leads to Numbing Behaviors
Humans are smart and adapt to stress in various ways. Often, to minimize the stress that seems out of our control, we develop coping strategies that allow us to FEEL less stress. This is frequently called numbing. Food and alcohol are two of the most popular ways to numb or dissociate from reality. We have all been guilty of eating too much or drinking in excess to avoid some uncomfortable situation, news, or person. This makes biological sense. We are using food as a calming strategy. As Dr. Andrew Huberman, a professor of Neurobiology at Stanford University has pointed out, fasting keeps us in a state of alertness while eating shifts us to a state of relative calm.
To make things worse, the foods we choose to numb with are high carbohydrate, comfort foods. This turns out to also make biological sense. The serotonin (the feel-good hormone) that is released when we eat those foods is the type of relief from stress that made us crave the heavy carb treat in the first place. Here again, we see how being on a diet, which increases our stress, will exacerbate cravings for the very foods we are trying to avoid.
Focus on Stress-Reduction Instead of Dieting
There is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight. We all want to look good in our favorite jeans AND studies show that eating healthy and keeping our weight down leads to less disease and longer, better lives. So how do we navigate a weight loss goal without starting an eating regimen that will trigger a stress response? Even if we do shun the restrictive diet, our relationship with food tends to elicit a stress response. It is not as if we can avoid food altogether. So how do we take the stress out of eating so that we can have the best possible chance of staying healthy?
I reached out to nutritionist Michelle Babb for some help answering those questions. Michelle is the author of several books, including Mastering Mindful Eating. After hearing about Michelle’s approach, I was hopeful. She first suggests that we transform our relationship with food. She believes that we ask food to fill too many shoes. As she puts it, “Food is here to nourish our physical body. When you are using food as a numbing device, or as your friend, as your enemy, as your celebration – all of these things – it is too big of a job for food.”
Instead of using food to fill the role of anti-depressant, companion, or entertainment, Michelle helps her clients find non-food and non-alcohol replacements. Ideally, she says, this alternative coping strategy would be something that requires using both of your hands. Knitting anyone?
Michelle also recommends s l o w i n g down when we eat. The hurried, multi-tasking, shoveling approach to eating is a sure way to activate a fight/flight stress response. Michelle’s book is a guidebook to avoiding the unnecessary cortisol release when we eat. She acknowledges that, given our harried culture, slowing down isn’t always possible, but she advises connecting with our senses as much as possible when we eat. Maybe it is paying attention to the smell or texture of your food for 30 seconds while you chew. Just that simple shift can give your body “a small break from that stress response.”
So dieting is stressful and a mindful approach to eating can reduce any stress that might be inherent in your relationship with food. Given how strong the correlation is between stress and weight gain, this less stress-more joy method of interacting with food is a promising tool to add to your arsenal of stress management techniques for long-term weight loss, weight maintenance, and overall health.