Stressed Out? Why Stress Might be Stopping You from Losing Weight and What to Do About It.

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.


The truth is, stress can hinder your weight loss or even cause weight gain. So, while your eating and fitness habits are working hard, your stress is working just as hard in a fight against them.

Losing weight is something many people struggle with. With the new year freshly underway, it’s possible that one of your resolutions has been to shed a little extra weight, or develop some lean muscle. 

Unfortunately, some of us can feel like we are doing everything right–counting calories, avoiding sugary foods, and working out–with no results. 

The truth is, stress can hinder your weight loss or even cause weight gain. So, while your eating and fitness habits are working hard, your stress is working just as hard in a fight against them. However, all is not lost! Here, we will look at some potential effects of stress on weight and ways to combat it. 

Stress And BMI: A General Overview

A 2013 study in the BMC Public Health journal examined the correlations between stress and BMI in women with socioeconomic difficulties. A total of 1382 women between age 18 and 46 were asked questions about their height, weight, stress level, eating and exercise habits, among other things. Their findings showed that women with higher levels of stress tended to have a higher BMI and were at greater risk for obesity. 

But it wasn’t just a direct impact on weight. The study also found that the women with higher stress levels were less likely to engage in healthy behavior, like physical activity, and were more likely to lead a sedentary lifestyle. Additionally, these women were more likely to consume fast food and spent more time in front of the TV. (1)

Does Stress Have A Direct Impact On Weight?

The BMC Public Health study shows how stress can lead to an increase in behaviors associated with weight gain, and a decrease in healthy behaviors that can help with weight loss. It might seem easy to conclude that the impact of stress on weight loss is indirect, and that stress is just another factor to test your motivation. 

However, stress has a more direct role to play. 

PhD Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and former professor wrote the book on stress: The Stress-Proof Brain. In it, she explains that stress has a very real physical impact on weight

The Evolutionary Science Of Stress

You may already know this, but stress and anxiety originally evolved as ways to protect ourselves; to get the body ready for fight or flight. Massive amounts of adrenaline are produced, to give your body the energy to fight a predator or to flee from it. 

What is less well-known is what happens after. If you were fighting an animal or running out of the path of a rock slide, your body would be using tremendous stores of energy. Once the threat is over, your body needs to get its equilibrium back. This leads to production of the “stress hormone” cortisol. Cortisol prompts you to eat to replenish your body’s energy reserves. The food it wants you to eat? Things with fats and sugars. 

Now, most of our stress is less physical in nature. If you’re stressed about a deadline at work or your upcoming wedding, you will probably not be running or fighting. But your brain will still produce that adrenaline, and in turn respond to that adrenaline spike with increased amounts of cortisol. Now, your entire body is telling you to have that snack–and maybe to pick cake instead of an apple. (2)

Even More Fat Hormones

So, cortisol may be prompting you to eat more and to choose sugary and fatty foods, but don’t you still have some control? 

Maybe not. PhD Mary Teruel published a study in 2018, in the journal Cell Metabolism, which looked at the idea that stress may be making more of your body’s cells into fat cells.

Under normal circumstances glucocorticoids replace about 10% of your fat cells a year. Old ones die, new ones need to be made. Only about 1% of the cells that have the potential to turn into fat generally do. 

However, the study made two very interesting discoveries. Firstly, if you have less than 12 hours between spikes in the production of stress hormones, more of your body’s cells will convert to fat. Secondly, when you get stressed matters as well. “If you experience chronic, continuous stress or take glucocorticoids [often found in arthritis or asthma medication] at night, the resulting loss of normal circadian glucocorticoid oscillations will result in significant weight gain,” says Teruel. (3)

Less Fat Burning

If that wasn’t enough, stress may also slow your metabolism. An Ohio State study on women and calorie burning gave 58 women a 930 calorie meal with 60g of fat. Then they observed, “On average, the women in the study who reported one or more stressors during the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women in the seven hours after eating the high-fat meal,” says the Ohio State News bulletin. It’s “a difference that could result in weight gain of almost 11 pounds in one year.” (4)

How To Combat Stress–And Keep Your Weight Down

Nutritionist and registered dietician Cynthia Sass has some suggestions for how to keep your weight down.

Balance Your Fats

Fat is important in making you feel full, and your body needs fat to run. However, if stress affects your fat-burning, stick to one source of fat per meal. “For example,” explains Sass, “if you want avocado on your salad, dress your greens with balsamic vinegar rather than an oil-based vinaigrette.” (5)

Just Breathe

“Spanish research showed that relaxed, controlled breathing can effectively reduce cortisol levels,” says Sass. She recommends starting off each meal with some deep, slow, breathing. (5)

Walk It Out

Taking 15 minutes for some light exercise after a meal can stabilize blood sugar for up to three hours, research shows. (5)

Spice It Up

A study showed that people “burned more calories when they ate spiced-up meals, and those who had been infrequent eaters of fiery food also felt less hungry and experienced fewer cravings for salty, fatty, and sweet treats.” Sass recommends chili powder and cayenne if you’re a spice beginner, or jalapeño pepper if you’re more experienced. (5)

Still Not Enough?

If you’re still struggling with stress and getting those stubborn pounds off, it might be time to consider boosting your diet. Be Serene is a supplement designed to calm stress and anxiety with “5 potent, healthy ingredients.” They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so stop stress before it can wreak havoc on your weight. (6)

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About Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.
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