Can Stress Make You Gain Weight?

Photographed by Ted Cavanaugh.
There’s a lot to celebrate this time of year. But there’s also a lot to be stressed about. Is it too soon to give your new love interest a gift? Will you burn your favorite snowman-shaped sugar cookies? Will a crying baby sit by you on your flight home for the holidays? Will a deranged family member drag you to see Cats in theaters!? 
We hope the last thing you're worrying about this season is your weight. Putting on a few pounds this time of year is normal. I think of it as kind of essential: It's cold, and some extra lbs work as a built-in base layer. But, of course, sometimes weight gain can lead to even more stress — if it makes zipping up the New Year's Eve outfit you bought weeks ago a little tougher, for instance.
What you may not know is that stress has as much to do with weight gain as holiday cookies and hot chocolate, according to Cleveland Clinic. Here’s what you need to know.

Can stress cause weight gain? 

The simple answer is yes, studies have linked stress with weight gain. Important information, given that six in 10 Americans are stressed out by work, and most rank their stress above a “healthy” level, per the American Psychological Association’s 2019 stress survey.
Stress — whether it’s brought on by emotional, financial, or physical factors — can wreak havoc on the body, explains Lisa Moskovitz, RD, the CEO of NY Nutrition Group, a private nutrition practice in New York City. “One of the more challenging side effects of stress is weight gain or increased fat storage,” she says. 

How does stress lead to weight gain? 

Some stress is totally normal, even healthy, Moskovitz says. “It’s when temporary stress turns chronic that the problems arise,” she says. This is when it will most impact your weight and disrupt the rest of your life.
Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands, are meant to peak and dip at different times throughout the day: They're highest in the morning and decline throughout the day, hitting their lowest point around 3 a.m., Moskovitz says. “However, for the chronically stressed, or those in constant over-drive, stress levels stay elevated in the [evening], and well into the night," she says. When cortisol levels are high when they should be low, fat cell production speeds up significantly, which can lead to weight gain, a study from the Stanford University School of medicine found.
Long-term stress and high cortisol can also ramp up your appetite and make you eat more, Harvard Health notes. Yes, “stress eating” is a real thing (though some people actually lose their appetites when they're anxious).
Another factor is stress-induced weight gain is sleep, says Amy Shapiro, RD, a nutritionist at Daily Harvest. Worry can keep you up at night and disrupt the quality of the zs you do get. “Often when we don’t have adequate sleep, we reach for highly caffeinated, sugary foods to give us quick energy that we crave during the day because we’re tired,” she says.

How can you avoid stress and weight gain around the holidays?  

Start by planning ways to manage your stress. That may mean knowing when to duck out of a family gathering for five minutes to use a meditation app or making sure a therapy appointment is on your calendar right after the holidays.
One super-quick, super-effective way to calm anxiety in the moment are breathing techniques, Sherry Benton, PhD, the founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, previously told Refinery29. She suggested this pattern: Stop and inhale for four counts, pause, and then breathe out for four counts. Add in a mantra, like "I am" as you breath in and “relaxed” as you breathe out. 
When it comes to stress eating, Hillary Cecere, RDN, a nutritionist at Eat Clean Bro, suggests coming up with coping mechanisms. “You can try exercise, journaling, mediating, a hot bath, reaching out to a friend or spending time outside,” she says.
Shapiro also suggests meal-prepping healthy snacks to make it easier to choose a nutritious food to munch on. “My favorite tip of all time is to stay hydrated,” she adds. “If you drink a glass of water before every holiday treat, you’ll likely ward off cravings, headaches, exhaustion and more.” 
In the end, reducing stress can help you avoid unwanted weight gain — and make the holidays (and the fire-side cups of cocoa that come with them) a more joyful time overall.

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