• Christine Phillips

Stress sabotaging your weight ?

I am beyond thrilled you reading this, and I hope it all makes sense once you done reading.

Here’s the thing – I learned that there is a strong connection between stress and the inability to lose weight. This isn’t new information but are we actually processing this? While stress seems to be one of the biggest factors that influences what, when, how and how much we eat, science shows that weight loss and weight gain is more than a calories in and calories out game.

A report in the International Journal of Obesity [1] found a relationship between job stress and body mass. Similar results were reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology [2] where a significant relationship between job-related demands and body mass was reported in women and men.

Other contributing stress factors included:

  • Lack of decision authority

  • Difficulty paying bills

  • Lack of job skills

  • Perceived constraints in life

  • Family and relationship strain

I am sharing what I learned about why stress is an issue, how it effects your weight and what you can do about it.

Why does stress effect weight ?

Stress can change your hunger and satiety cues. Sometimes, stress will make you feel hungry more often. Other times, stress can completely squash your appetite. Either way, this can lead to dysregulated eating patterns that can create a weight imbalance and/or an inability to lose or gain weight.

Stress can have a negative effect on the way the Hypothalamic Pituitary–drenal (HPA) axis effects appetite [3].

When stressed, your body triggers a cascade of chemical and hormonal changes designed to help you remain alive and safe. You pump more epinephrine into your bloodstream and levels of cortisol rise. This action drives the fight or flight response. When you have chronic stress or repeated stress, the consistent increase of cortisol affects a very important hunger hormone called leptin. Leptin regulates your appetite, so when cortisol knocks it out of whack, you feel more hungry more often. This can trick your brain into thinking you need more calories when you don’t AND make it more difficult to feel satisfied. [4].


When you’re stressed your body seeks foods that give the most ‘bang for your buck.’ One study found that in times of stress, “humans turn to hyperpalatable comfort foods such as fast food, snacks, and calorie-dense foods even in the absence of hunger” [5].

Another part of craving higher fat foods may have to do with ghrelin’s role in insulin regulation.[6] Higher fat foods can help keep blood sugar stable when eaten with other foods. They slow absorption and digestion so there is not a huge spike in blood sugar.

Stress, Sleep and Cortisol

One of the most common challenges when dealing with stress are changes in sleep quality and sleep pattern. Insomnia plaques millions every night, and while you might not make an immediate connection between sleep issues and weight issues, it’s there!

A lack of sleep can spike your cortisol. Studies show that even short-term disrupted sleep can cause metabolic and endocrine dysregulation including:

  • decreased glucose tolerance,

  • decreased insulin sensitivity,

  • increased evening concentrations of cortisol,

  • increased levels of ghrelin,

  • decreased levels of leptin and

  • increased hunger and appetite [7

Fat Storage and Inability to Lose Weight

When cortisol is elevated, it effects where excess body fat as stored; in fact the science shows that cortisol makes the body favor abdominal fat storage[8].

This is what it looks like:

  • Stress increases cortisol

  • Cortisol makes you hungry

  • Hunger causes overeating

  • Overeating increases fat storage

  • Cortisol pushes excess calories towards belly fat

  • Belly fat increase stress (fat is hormonally active!)

And the loop starts again. So, the longer you are stressed, the more challenging it becomes to break the cycle. Also, stress alone is enough to hinder weight loss because of the way the body is pushed to store fat rather than burn it.

How Can You Lose Weight When You are Stressed?

Truth? It is difficult to release weight without addressing stress. So, part of the solution and plan MUST include addressing and relieving stress.


  • Exercise (but don’t over do it!)

Many studies show that exercise is key not only for health, but for stress relief. You might think that you have to train hard or push yourself to a certain level of fitness to get benefits, but in fact, what we know is that exercising to excess can ADD to the stress burden. So, when you are choosing your exercise approach, match it to your fitness level and keep it fun and interesting. As your fitness improves, adjust your activities to build strength or to improve your overall health. The simple act of moving your body for 20-30 minutes daily, walking or dancing or weight training – that is enough to help with your stress response. Yoga, swimming, walking in nature – may not burn the most calories, but will help you relax and normalize cortisol levels.

  • Nourish yourself deeply.

Nourishment comes in many forms. Nutrition is one piece of it. Feeding your spirit and giving your soul some space matter too! So, think about the ways you need nourishment:

  • Diet

  • Creativity/Passion/Fun

  • Movement

  • Relationship/Connection

  • Healing emotional stuff

Think about nourishment in terms of good, better, best --- if you know there are opportunities to up your support in areas where you feel stressed, do it in small steps. If your diet lacks fruits, veg and greens, start by adding a smoothie with a ready made blend of frozen berries and greens. You don’t need to start organic gardening or growing sprouts.

Think about flexibility and progress rather than absolutes or perfection. As you make choices about what nourishes you, ask yourself, “what do I need?” If you are eating, ask, “What am I really feeding?” Adjust y