By Haley Golich, RD

We all experience stressors in our lives. School, work, health concerns, and relationships can all become sources of stress at one point or another. Unfortunately, these stressors can often lead to a propensity for overeating, thus increasing the likelihood of unhealthy weight gain. Read on to learn about why stress can contribute to weight gain and how to effectively manage the stressors in your life.

The science of stress and weight gain

When our body goes through an acute bout of stress, our “fight or flight” hormone, adrenaline, is produced. This restricts blood flow to the digestive system causing a short-term decrease in appetite. However, once adrenaline production decreases, cortisol production increases, leading to a subsequent increase in appetite. This biological response makes perfect sense when we consider our origins as hunter-gatherers, but becomes a problem when we consider all of the stressors that many face in today’s world. Chronic stress can lead to a chronic secretion of cortisol and, subsequently, an increase in hunger.

This increase in hunger is only one piece of the cortisol problem. Studies have suggested that increased cortisol secretion may lead to increased ghrelin secretion, our body’s “hunger hormone.” Cortisol also acts to mobilize fat stores and relocate them to visceral fat. This is the fat deep in our abdomen that surrounds our vital organs…and the most worrisome. Individuals with high levels of cortisol production are also increasingly more likely to select highly palatable foods like those high in fat, sugar, and calories. These factors further compound the problem and shine light on just how detrimental chronic stress can be for our health and our waistline.

So, what can we do about it?

While there are countless strategies we can employ to help us better manage stress, it is important to first address our perspective. This starts with focusing on what we can control.

Our lives are full of things we have no control over. For example, we may be concerned about our parents’ health, the current political climate, or what our co-workers think about our work performance. However, we clearly have little to no influence over these things. When we become too focused on things that are outside of our control, our “concern” can quickly grow and become stress. Alternatively, when we become responsible for our own lives and focus only on issues within our control, we can proactively take steps to prevent stress from building. Take a moment to think about some of the biggest stressors in your life. Ask yourself, “Of these stressors, what is in my control and what is out of my control?” It is important to recognize what is our responsibility, what we can do to positively impact that responsibility, and then let go of the outcome and practice acceptance. Real serenity comes to those who accept life on life’s terms.

When we address our stress level, it is important to practice an attitude of gratitude. Becoming preoccupied with life’s stressors can cause us to lose sight of all that we have to be grateful for. For most of us, this means a roof over our heads, good quality food on our table, clean water in our cups, and so much more. We must not lose sight of just how fortunate we all really are, which helps to put these perceived stressors into perspective.

Stress Management Tips

Even with the right perspective, stress can still manifest itself in our lives. Consider practicing some of the following strategies to help manage stress and work towards a healthier, happier life.

Get your sleep: Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can promote the expression of genes related to weight gain and obesity. Unfortunately, stress and sleep challenges can become a vicious cycle, with sleep deprivation leading to higher levels of stress and thus poor quality sleep. Aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night and stick to the same sleep routine on weeknights and weekends.

Exercise daily: Formal exercise and NEAT help to lower stress hormones such as cortisol and release endorphins that naturally improve your mood. Commit to exercising each and every day as a part of your stress management regimen. Talk with your trainer about the exercise prescription that is right for you.

Keep track of the “Why” behind your eating: When you find yourself mindlessly reaching into the chip bowl or perusing the fridge late at night, stop and ask yourself “Why am I choosing to eat right now? Am I really hungry?” You might recognize that you are eating for the wrong reasons, like boredom, relaxation, social cues, or simply as habit. The more you can recognize these habits/reasons why, the more you can address the root cause in a healthier and more effective way.

Find healthy alternatives: If you tend to grab for sweet or salty snacks when you are stressed, consider swapping these food items for a healthy alternative. Try frozen Greek yogurt in place of ice cream, fruit in place of a piece of candy, or some dry roasted edamame in place of potato chips. These healthy swaps will not only be better for your waistline, but they are packed with nutrients like protein and fiber which keep you satisfied for longer.

Take a digital detox: We all need time for leisure activities. Leisure time helps us to decompress and recharge. However, using screen time as our sole source of leisure can lead to decreased sleep quality and increased stress levels. Consider instead taking time each week to take part in leisure activities like reading a book, taking a hot bath, meditating, or listening to your favorite music.

With a new perspective and a proactive approach to stress management, we can finally say no to letting stress dictate our life and our waistline.

Haley Golich, RD is One on One’s Director of Nutrition Services. Contact her at