Stress Belly: How to Overcome Stress-Induced Obesity

How can you overcome a stubborn stress belly? It’s becoming more widely known that excess stress can lead to excess belly fat. There are a host of factors that influence your weight, from your genetics to your dietary choices. While many people know that fat-laden and processed foods will increase their chances of weight gain, most don’t realize that a major cause of weight gain is actually their emotional state.

Stress-induced obesity, stress-related weight gain and “stress belly” are all examples of conditions wherein people pack on the pounds during periods of excess stress. Whether the extra weight is a result of unhealthy food choices, stress eating, or a side-effect of high cortisol levels, experts agree that managing stress is key to controlling your weight.

Let’s explore how stress influences your ability to maintain the right weight.


What Does Stress Do to Your Body? Stress and Cortisol

Stress is often described as an emotional, psychological experience. However, stress has a physical impact on us as well. Even if you don’t notice the physical side effects of stress straight away, every period of emotional overwhelm does something to your body.

From tense muscles to tension headaches, feelings of irritation or a rapid heart rate, stress takes a toll on your health, both mentally, and physically. While you’ll notice some effects of stress straight away, like an increased heart rate, other symptoms will take longer to become recognizable. This is usually the case with weight gain.

One of the most significant factors influencing the physical impact of stress on your body is the hormone cortisol. We naturally create this hormone in the adrenal glands, producing increased levels in response to threats. If you’re constantly experiencing stress, your body will always be dealing with a “perceived threat”, which means cortisol levels stay high.

So, why is cortisol such a problem?

Cortisol and its Impact on Body Weight

Excess cortisol is a significant problem because the hormone can be an appetite stimulant. To engage in the “fight or flight” response and deal with a threat, cortisol tells your body to release glucose for energy. This leaves your brain and body craving additional energy, often in the form of sugar-laden foods. That’s why many people with high-stress levels crave fast food and candy.

Sugar provides us with the quick energy our bodies think they need. Unfortunately, the more sugar you eat, the more your body starts to store, often in the form of dangerous tummy fat. High-stress levels often lead to a vicious cycle of stressful eating.

Aside from damaging your relationship with food, cortisol also slows your metabolism, making it harder to lose weight. A study from Ohio state university found that women who reported one or more “stressors” during the 24 hours prior to eating a high-calorie meal cut through 104 calories more than non-stressed women.

The women with stress in the study also had higher insulin levels. The higher your insulin levels, the more likely your body is to store fat.  Unfortunately, the weight gained from stress eating is also more likely to lead to visceral fat storage, which is the difficult-to-lose fat around the abdomen. Visceral fat contains more cytokines than subcutaneous fat, which can cause inflammation, and chronic health problems. Visceral fat can also prompt a higher risk of insulin resistance.

According to Harvard Health, higher levels of visceral fat increase your risk of:

  • Dementia
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cancer
  • Asthma

Stress and Disordered Eating Habits

While the hormonal changes that happen in our body as a result of stress have a significant impact on weight, there’s another way that stress can lead to obesity: by changing our habits. When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to indulge in behaviours like emotional eating, which often involves eating larger amounts of food than you normally would and choosing less healthy food.

When we’re overwhelmed and stressed, we’re more likely to reach for foods we believe will comfort or ease our strain immediately.

This means stressed people usually eat more fast food, or foods high in sugar. When you’re stressed, you can also feel more fatigued – particularly if the stress is caused by high demands on your schedule. This could mean that exercise becomes less of a priority on your to-do list.

Stress even increases your chances of sleeping problems, which are commonly associated with a slower metabolism, and reduced willpower. In other words, you’re less likely to stick to healthy foods and less capable of metabolizing unhealthy ones.


How to Break the Stress and Weight-Gain Cycle

Reducing your exposure to stress is the most obvious way to overcome stress-induced obesity. Drinking a cup of tea and relaxing with a good book at the end of each day can help you to unwind. Meditating, or even practising yoga can help you to clear your thoughts and regain a sense of control for dealing with your stress.

Socializing and talking about your stress can be helpful too. Whether it’s going on a jog with friends or speaking to a doctor or a therapist about your concerns, it’s important to open up. Other ways to improve your chances of overcoming stress-induced obesity include:

  • Knowing your sensitivities: Check for possible food intolerances with a blood test or a CircleDNA test to find out which foods you’re most sensitive to. If you’re more likely to store fat than most, try to ensure you have some low-fat snacks on hand for when you feel like you need to stress eat.
  • Exercise every day: Exercising more regularly will have a positive impact on multiple areas of your life. Regular exercise will boost your mood and help you to tackle stress, while giving you the tools you need to shed visceral fat. Only 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per day can make a huge difference to how you feel. When you’re at work, try standing more than sitting, walking around the office at times, and finding excuses to move.
  • Watch your diet: A balanced diet is a must-have for dealing with stress and obesity. Research even indicates some nutrients can help to reduce stress. For instance, B vitamins are great for emotional resilience, so try adding avocados, leafy green vegetables and bananas to your diet. Where possible, avoid foods which can encourage weight gain, like hydrogenated vegetable oils and high-calorie foods.
  • Be more mindful of your relationship with food: Practice mindful eating. This involves paying attention to every texture, taste, and sensation you get when eating something. The practice can help you to slow down, and reduce your risk of binge-eating, but helping you to define when you’re full. You’ll also be able to better identify when you’re eating for stress, rather than because you’re hungry, which could help to prevent weight gain in future.
  • Drink more water: It’s easy to confuse being thirsty with being hungry, particularly in today’s fast-paced world. Confusing these cravings can lead you to consuming more calories than your body really needs, which leads to weight gain. It’s much easier to ask yourself if you’re genuinely hungry after you’ve downed a glass of water. Consider having something to drink before you start eating.
  • Reduce alcohol intake: While alcohol can seem like a great way to reduce stress, the effects are temporary at best. Most of the time, drinking alcohol means consuming extra liquid calories, which leads to more belly fat in the long-term. Alcoholic drinks are high in calories, and your body needs to burn through the alcohol before it can burn fat, which means you store more fat in your stomach.

Caring for your health with a good night’s sleep, so you’re less likely to eat based on feelings of fatigue alone is another good way to reduce your risk of stress-induced obesity. Doctors also recommend avoiding cigarettes, as smoking can increase your risk of abdominal obesity.

Reducing Your Stress is Key to a Healthier Weight

As you probably noticed from the advice above, the best way to protect yourself from stress-induced obesity is to start caring for yourself. While we all encounter periods of stress in our lives, we can begin to overcome them with self-care.

Paying attention to the triggers which cause your stress can help you to get a handle on the changes you might need to make in your life to reduce these negative emotions long-term. At the same time, being more mindful of your food choices will help you to avoid making the wrong decisions about your food when you do feel tempted to eat due to stress.

If you think your stress is really getting the better of you, and you’re not sure how to start making some lifestyle changes on your own, it might be best to speak to a medical professional or registered dietician. Your doctor may also suggest working with a psychologist to help develop strategies to manage your stress and improve your relationship with food.

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