Weight-management advice often focuses on what to eat and how many calories to burn with exercise. However, another factor can play an essential role in whether or not a healthy weight can be reached and maintained: the stress level.
“Research has indeed shown that there is a connection between the body’s stress response and changes in weight,” said Amberly Malone, clinical dietitian at AdventHealth-Central Texas in Killeen. “Stress can cause changes in our habits and behaviors, but we can also see these changes at a molecular level.”
Scientists have found that chronic stress is connected with weight gain over an extended period of time. People with higher markers of the stress hormone cortisol were more likely to have a higher BMI.
The hormone cortisol is essential for many processes in the human body, including controlling blood pressure, metabolism and insulin release for blood sugar control.
“But a chronically high level of cortisol from stress can disrupt your metabolism and increase our cravings for high-calorie foods,” Malone said.
Historically, stressful situations required a physical response and, therefore, lots of energy. But evolution has changed our society and today’s stressors are primarily psychological, causing the excess energy being mainly stored as belly fat.
Chronically elevated stress hormones can cause an increased appetite. Due to biological factors, comfort foods are even more appealing when feeling anxious.
“It’s not unusual to use food as a coping mechanism for stress and other uncomfortable feelings like depression and anxiety,” Maline said.
Although comfort food doesn’t help reduce stress levels, science has shown that food can appear to taste better when eating in response to stress.
“However, stress can also cause behavior changes and gastrointestinal issues that may actually lead to loss of appetite or poor intakes,” Malone said. “Either way, stress can negatively affect our weight through increasing or decreasing our energy intake or increasing or decreasing our energy expenditure.”
Food can affect the way the human body handles stress. Generally, diet significantly influences a person’s mood and weight. Research has shown that well-nourished brains are calmer and more optimistic, which helps thinking clearly.
“Studies have shown that adhering to a healthy diet such as the Mediterranean diet can be protective against depression,” Malone said. “Furthermore, studies have shown a correlation between diets high in fat and sugar and increased likelihood for depression and anxiety.”
Experts recommend foods high in vitamin E, zinc and omega-3-fats that can lower inflammation and reduce anxiety. Focusing on plant-based foods with various fruit and vegetables can also lower stress levels and encourage a healthy gut microbiome due to its high fiber content.
While modern life is full of stressors that can’t always be controlled, stress can be managed with adequate sleep and regular exercise in addition to healthy, well-balanced nutrition.
“As you can see, it can be a vicious cycle if food is your only way of coping with your emotions,” Malone said. “Find other ways to manage your stress such as exercise, socializing with friends and family, meditating, or doing something else that brings you joy.”