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stress and weight gain

Comfort Food & Cortisol | The Connection Between Stress and Weight Gain

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In the United States, the majority of adults are overweight or obese, increasing their risk for health conditions including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Obesity can also raise morbidity risks associated with hypertension, stroke, various cancers and respiratory problems. There is also a clear link between comfort food and weight gain.

The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey suggests that stress influences our eating habits, which in turn, leads to weight gain. According to the survey, 38 percent of adults say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress. More than half of these respondents report stress eating on a weekly basis. As a result of overeating or eating unhealthy foods during stressful times, 46 percent of survey respondents reported feeling bad about their bodies, and many others report feeling sluggish or lazy.

Stress eating does nothing for our bodies and can derail our weight loss goals, so why do we do it? Stress in the short term may actually decrease appetite due to the release of epinephrine, or adrenaline, but persistent stress causes the release of a different hormone: cortisol, the stress hormone. When the adrenal glands release cortisol into the body, it increases appetite and may rev up your motivation to eat. Other studies show that high cortisol levels, in conjunction with high insulin levels, may be responsible for food preferences during stressful times.

Comfort foods — foods high in fat, sugar or both — seem to counteract stress, or at least dampen the feelings of stress. When certain foods help you feel better in times of stress, it can contribute to stress-induced cravings for such foods, which only leads to weight gain over time.

The honest truth is, we live in a stressful society. For the average American, day-to-day life is simply stressful. So how can you combat stress in a healthy way without turning to comfort foods? Here are a few suggestions to help you counter the stress in your life:


Numerous studies link meditation to reduced stress, lower blood pressure and reduced risk of heart disease. Regular meditation may also help you be more mindful of food choices, helping you to avoid reaching for fatty, sugary foods when you’re feeling stressed.


Exercise can help blunt the effects of stress, as physical activity induces the production of endorphins, a.k.a. “feel-good hormones.” If you’re feeling overwhelmed, emotional or stressed out, try going for a brisk walk or hitting the gym rather than sitting down with a bowl of ice cream. Yoga and tai chi are two forms of exercise that also incorporate meditation.

Keep your diet balanced.

It may be easier to fall into stress eating if you aren’t giving your body the regular nutrients it needs in the first place. Always eat regularly (every four to five hours) to help keep your blood sugar, hormones and emotions balanced. The more balanced you are, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with stress without resorting to food.

Make healthier choices.

Eat complex carbohydrates more than simple carbs. Complex carbs will help make you feel good by releasing serotonin, a chemical that combats the stress hormone. Complex carbohydrates include whole grain cereals and breads, brown rice, vegetables, beans, fruits and non-fat milk.

Recognize stress in your life.

Learn to recognize how stress makes you feel, then train your brain to stop before eating and ask yourself if you are truly hungry or just responding to the stress of the moment. Think about when you last ate to see if your body needs more food or if the hunger or craving is just an emotional response. Negative emotions can make you think you are hungry when it’s often just habit.

Avoid keeping junk food around the house.

Limit your access to unhealthy foods at home. Don’t buy junk food or keep ice cream in the freezer. Instead, keep cut up veggies and fresh fruit on hand so you’ll be more likely to reach for something nutritious during stressful times.

While it may not be possible to avoid all stress in your life, it is important to identify the root of your stress and aim to find a long-term solution to that stress. If you struggle to deal with stress or emotions in a healthy way, schedule an appointment with your physician to help you develop a healthy plan to conquer stress in your life.

If your stress has caused you to gain weight that you’re now struggling to lose or you have questions about weight gain, contact Dr. Todd McCarty, bariatric surgeon, to learn more about weight loss surgery in Dallas.