Most of the women I work with have a busy life with plenty of responsibilities. They are frequently exposed to stressful situations. Sometimes stress is constant over days or even weeks. Often, clients and friends are telling me that they are gaining weight during those stressful times. The reasons for stress-related weight gain and how to best avoid it are being discussed in this article.

You probably won’t be able to reduce all the stressors in your life. But you can use food, sleep and exercise to have an impact on your body’s physical response to stress. This will reduce the risk of stress-related weight gain.

How can stress cause weight gain?

Stress is basically a response from our body to prepare the “fight or flight” action in a potentially dangerous situation. Functions such as digestion is shutting down and blood diverts into muscles to prepare for a fast action. Different hormones and chemicals are released, such as adrenaline and cortisol. I’m not going into detail here but cortisol is the critical one for our question. It is far more complex than this, but let’s put it simple:

One of the functions of cortisol is to release glucose (a type of sugar) from proteins stored in your body. This raises your blood sugar level in order to provide energy that is immediately available. If needed, this energy is used for an action like “fight or flight”. These days, we are rarely stressed because of an actually dangerous situation. Rather, we are under constant stress from our job and busy lifestyle. When unused, glucose will eventually be stored as fat.

This is one of the ways cortisol can contribute to stress-related weight gain. When your cells are constantly being “starved” of glucose, this sends hunger signals to your brain. It will be hard for you not to overeat. A significant and prolonged increase in blood sugar level can even lead to serious conditions like diabetes.

The other crucial aspect to answer our question is that cortisol directly influences water retention in the body. Long-term stress can lead to more water being stored in the body which to you will look like weight gain.


What can you do to avoid gaining weight during stressful times?

There is no guaranteed solution to avoiding stress-related weight gain. Or actually there is one: Reduce the stressors in your life. Ok, I know that’s more easily said than done. Here are a few life hacks that you can use to get back in control and find some balance in your busy life:

#1 Eat regular meals and clean food

Most people don’t take time for their meals on a stressful day because they feel they don’t have any time. This is the worst you can do. Settling for fast food or eating out in the wrong places will backfire on you. You’re not getting the nutrients and type of food you need to battle your stress. Change eating habits will have a huge positive effect.

  • Eat as “clean” as possible. Clean means whole foods, no processed foods or refined sugar. This will help tremendously to balance out your glucose levels.
  • Eat seated. First of all this will take some pace out of your busy day. Studies have shown that you eat more slowly when seated. This way you consume less food and fewer calories. You will also chew your food more properly which makes it easier on your stomach.
  • Make your diet protein-rich. A meal rich in protein will make you feel satisfied for longer than e.g. a high carb, low-protein meal.
  • Eat complex carbs rather than fast carbs. Foods in the fast carb category will add to high blood sugar levels, leaving you feeling hungry soon again. They can also lead to cravings for more fast carbs. Your body needs more time to break down complex carbs which will keep your glucose levels balanced. Complex carbs are for example: whole grains, brown rice, sweet potatoes, white potatoes with skin, quinoa, beans, lentils and pumpkin. No-go-carbs during a stressful day at the office: white pasta and bread, sweets, baked goods, any type of food high in refined sugar.
  • Do not use food as a reward. When you feel like you need to reward yourself for finishing a task or having dealt with a difficult situation, do not use food. It’s a simple as that. You will develop an unhealthy habit out of this. Rather than snacking, take active breaks.
  • Be restrictive with drug-like substances. I’m referring to caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and sugar. Those substances either are a drug or have a drug-like effect on your body adding to the stress.
  • Add foods that regulate your glucose level. There are certain foods that can regulate glucose levels in your blood, such as avocado, green tea and raw cacao. Take a few minutes to put in some more research. Pick a few that you like and add them to your diet.

#2 Fight cravings

Food cravings will happen. I’ve never heard of a woman who never gets any. It’s especially difficult for us at certain times of our hormonal cycle. There are a few ways to fight those cravings.

  • Follow advice #1. Eating properly helps avoiding cravings.
  • Find healthy snack alternatives. Some ideas: Banana slices with a bit of peanut butter and cinnamon, a hot chai tea with some milk and honey, a few almonds, half an avocado with lime juice.
  • Distract yourself. Pretty often we’re not actually craving for a snack, but just for a break from what we’ve been doing. Snacks are an easy go-to. Popular snacks provide sugar which makes us feel good for a bit until our blood sugar goes down again. Getting some mental distraction may work as well: Go out and get some fresh air or sun, stretch, just get up from your desk and walk a bit or chit chat with someone.

#3 Get enough and good sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep must not be underestimated to recover from a stressful day and balance out your hormones. When stressed, it’s again cortisol that can give us a hard time falling asleep. Cortisol is usually highest in the morning in order to wake us up. It gradually decreases to its lowest level in the evening when it’s time to go to bed. When you’re not able to de-stress in the evening your cortisol production doesn’t go down enough. You won’t be able to get a restful night. However, if you put in a bit of effort you can improve your sleep a lot.

  • Clear your mind. Getting off any devices like your laptop and phone around 2 hours before going to bed has a big impact on calming down your mind. We are consuming a lot of information by browsing the web or social media which our mind needs to process. If your mind keeps being busy with specific problems, to-do’s or topics, take a pen and paper and write your thoughts down. Put the paper on your desk so you can follow up the next day.
  • Eliminate sleep-disturbing factors. I’m specifically referring to sources of light and noise. The most obvious thing to get is window blinds that actually block out light. Less obvious but equally disturbing is light from devices such as a TV or wifi router. Most obvious disturbing source of noise is a snoring life partner, but it’s your call what to do about that 😉 Less obvious can for example be an old fridge that is making all kinds of noises during the night.
  • Develop relaxing rituals or habits. Options are infinite, just find something that works well for yourself. This could be having a nice bath, sipping a herbal tea, stretching, or experimenting with breathing techniques.
  • Try supplements. Getting checked by a doctor for any deficiencies that might cause insomnia is generally a good idea. If you haven’t been able to sleep for a few nights supplementing melatonin might be a short-term remedy. Under normal circumstances your body should produce the right amount of melatonin at the right time for a healthy sleeping pattern. Stress can disrupt this natural cycle though. Magnesium is also known for a calming effect. Taken shortly before going to bed it can help you with a better sleep. A lot of people lack in B-vitamins. Supplementing B-6 can not only help getting a better sleep but may also make you experience dreams more vividly. Again, I highly suggest you consult an expert when you’re experiencing insomnia.

#4 Exercise

I know you saw that one coming. Being physically active is crucial to avoiding stress-related weight gain. I’m not talking about excessive, daily workouts because that might as well add to your stress. I’m talking about moderate activity that makes you feel good.

  • Exercise helps you balance your hormone levels. It can reduce the high amount of adrenaline and cortisol when you are under stress.
  • Exercise elevates your mood. It stimulates the production of the so-called “happy hormones”.
  • Exercise can be a form of meditation. When it’s tough to switch off the mind, joining a yoga class, going for a run or lifting some weights can help achieve exactly that.
  • Exercise can make you feel more satisfied. A lot of people have a feeling of having accomplished something after their workout. This is especially important to people who are in this vicious circle of never-ending tasks at work, feeling like they are constantly running behind.
  • Exercising can burn fat. Depending on what kind of exercise you’re doing it can fuel fat burn and thereby help you maintain your weight or even lose some.

Check out my 8-weeks fitness program “Fit with Bands” that can get you kick-started on your fitness journey. Workouts that you can do anywhere and any time. 

As always, if you have experience with stress-related weight gain or your own life hacks to avoid it, I’d be happy if you leave a comment for me and my readers.

If you haven’t read them yet, also take a look at this related blog post.