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  • Writer's pictureMatt Crowe

Why Stress Is Making You Fat

Updated: May 6, 2023


s is a fact of life! No human who wants to achieve anything in life is immune to the anxiety and tension that we all feel to get things done and succeed! BUT chronic stress may be the reason you can’t lose those extra kilos or worse still prolonged stress may be increasing your waistline!

Fat gain or lack of fat loss have been well linked with consistently high stress levels in many studies over the years.

The Brief Science

There are some key hormones that get released when you are in a stressed state. Most notably adrenaline surges into the system to tap energy stores ready for fight or flight and at the same time cortisol is released which is a hormone that tells your body to replenish energy that you haven’t really burnt off.

Cortisol encourages your body to store fat (especially visceral fat or fat around the organs) and also reduces testosterone production which diminishes muscle mass and hence slows your metabolism (lean muscle mass is one the biggest ‘boosters’ of metabolism in the human system but more on that another time!).

Though in contrast to this cortisol also aids lipolysis or the breakdown of fat to be used as fuel so can be a positive hormone for fat loss.

So Why Does Stress Make You Fat?

The issue it seems is not in short term stress (in fact intense exercise bursts are a form of stress and these are proven fat busters) but rather in chronic stress. Despite the scientific evidence showing how stress and the released cortisol affect your fat storage and metabolism many fitness experts will point to the issue not being cortisol itself but rather the hunger it creates in combination with another stress initiated hormone called ghrelin which drives up your satiety.

So stress in simply terms makes you very, very hungry!

So do you reach for apples when this happens? Of course you don’t. You want ‘feel good’ foods that are generally high in sugar, fat and calories because these release pleasure chemicals that make you feel temporarily better!

Well you know what happens next? Just look down!

So What To Do?

I would love to tell you there is a secret single remedy but there is not. You simply have to do the many things that you already know. But start with these:

1) Just Move – exercise is without doubt your best remedy for stress! Not only is movement proven to reduce the levels of mental stress you feel, a catharsis if you like, but exercise directly increases blood flow which helps flush cortisol out of the system!

2) No Strict diets – research shows that starving yourself causes cortisol to increase with greater spikes in blood sugar when which lead to irritability & hence hunger. When you are in this state your will power doesn’t stand a chance.

3) Eat Mindfully – this sounds a little ‘airy fairy’ but all it really means is slow down your eating, savour the down time (clear your mind) and let your feelings of fullness (there is generally a 15min lag) catch up with the amount you are eating so you eat less!

4) Reduce coffee – sorry to tell you this but research has shown that caffeine not only boosts cortisol levels by up to 30% but it keeps cortisol levels elevated for longer so the negative effects stick around!

5) Limit Alcohol – Yes I am afraid that alcohol just makes it all worse too! It is a short term ‘mental’ fix that causes even more long lasting issues as the body now has to deal with more calories, more sugar and toxins that further inhibit fat loss!

6) Sleep is King – anyone that ever listens to me will hear me say that “sleep is the single best thing you can do for optimal health & wellbeing”. Well that is particularly pertinent when it comes to stress.

People that sleep less than 6.5 hours per day have been proven to have a much greater chance of higher cortisol levels, increased appetite and weight gain! If you can sleep 7-8 hours the body can rest, restore, replenish, rejuvenate, rebuild and regenerate so that you feel amazing!

Bottom line is that stress does in deed make and/or keep you fat! You need great discipline to ‘do the right things’ when you are in a stressed state. Your “I don’t care right now’ attitude is very hard to talk out of eating that pizza and drinking that bottle of wine! You simply have to be stronger & smarter and recognise that when you are stressed you are most likely to make bad lifestyle choices! You must avoid environments and people that are likely to encourage you to eat and drink ‘rubbish’ and you must work to reduce your general levels of stress with proactive activities. Get out and go for a walk (or the old “walk it off”) is about the best advice I can give you in acute stressful situations!

There is absolutely no doubt exercise is your best method to combat stress! People that exercise are 400% less likely to become chronically stresses and 100% better able to cope when they are stressed!

The mental break combined with the physical catharsis of exercise cannot be replaced by any drug! Make exercise your drug of choice and you will lower your levels of anxiety over time leading to decreased cortisol in your system allowing your body to function at near optimal capacity. This combined with a calmer state of mind will allow you take control of your lifestyle choices and start to shift that weight again and increase your overall health & wellbeing!

Good luck.

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