Does Stress Cause Weight Gain? The Secret to Weight Loss Might Be Learning to Reduce Your Stress

Does-Stress-Cause-Weight-GainLosing weight is not an easy task. It can be daunting to alter diet and fit regular exercise into your schedule. But there’s another important element to weight loss that is rarely mentioned: managing your stress.

How does stress cause weight gain?

Stress is clearly associated with weight gain.[1,2] Both stress and negative emotions are known to induce overeating, which is a coping mechanism for many people.[3]

But stress doesn’t just lead to overeating: it also increases cortisol levels in the body. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is stimulated in response to stress. Stress causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol, and chronic exposure to elevated cortisol levels is associated with increased fat storage, abdominal fat, and weight gain.[4] 

What you can do about it

The good news is that learning to manage stress can boost weight loss. A study in 2013 found that obese women who were taught stress management along with a conventional dietary intervention lost more weight than those who did not follow a stress management program.[3] You’ll find six steps to manage stress here, and learn about an herb that reduces stress 44% here.

In addition to managing stress, people who share the following behaviors are better able to lose weight and keep it off:

  1. Sleeping well [2]
  2. Maintaining a positive body image [5]
  3. Affirming personal values [6]
  4. Having a higher self-esteem [7]
  5. Practicing positive self-talk and self-compassion [8,9]
  6. Having social support [10]
  7. Taking responsibility, feeling in control, and being confident in their abilities.[7,9]

Of course, if you’re trying to lose weight, it may be hard to maintain a positive body image or feel in control. That’s where cognitive therapy can help.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you to identify inaccurate and negative thoughts or beliefs and modify these kinds of unhealthy responses.[5,11] For example, have you ever being doing well on a weight-loss program only to be derailed by a thought like this?

  • I have no self-control so I’ll eat this second helping.
  • I had a stressful day, so I deserve a little treat.
  • I hate my body.
  • I will never be able to reach my weight loss goals.

These are examples of faulty thoughts that lead you to act in ways that aren’t aligned with your weight loss goal. Cognitive therapy teaches you to understand that those thoughts are destructive, to learn to recognize them as they occur, and to stop them in their tracks. Instead, you can learn to replace them with positive thoughts that will help you reach your goal.

  • I want this second helping, but that doesn’t mean I have to eat it. I am in control of what I eat and don’t eat.
  • I had a stressful day, I’ll take a walk.
  • I love my body, and there is more to me than how I look.
  • I have already made small improvements, and I am confident I will keep getting closer to my goal.

A good way to put this into practice is to make a list of the thoughts that trigger you to overeat or to eat unhealthy foods. Then, for each one, write a more positive or more helpful response to replace the negative thought. Write them down and carry them with you. When you catch yourself thinking a trigger thought, refer to your list for help reframing it.

This is a simplified look at an expansive practice. To learn more about cognitive therapy and diet, look for the excellent book, “The Beck Diet Solution” by Judith Beck. Cognitive therapy is also beneficial for depression. Learn more here. You may also want to look in the NHA Practitioner Directory for a psychologist who works with cognitive behavior therapy.

Share your experience

What tips do you have for losing weight? Have you found that reducing stress and positive self-talk help? Share your story in the comments section below.


[1] Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 Apr;19(4):771-8.

[2] J Chiropr Humanit. 2013 Oct 22;20(1):27-35.

[3] J Hum Nutr Diet. 2013 Jul;26 Suppl 1:132-9.

[4] BMC Public Health. 2013 Oct 28;13:1018.

[5] J Am Acad Nurse Pract. 2011 Nov;23(11):592-601.

[6] Psychol Sci. 2012 Jan 1;23(1):53-5.

[7] Obes Rev. 2005 Feb;6(1):67-85.

[8] Mindfulness. 2014 July:1-12.

[9] J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 Apr;112(4):499-505.

[10] J Adv Nurs. 2014 Jun;70(6):1381-90.

[11] J R Soc Promot Health. 2000 Mar;120(1):27-30.

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UHN Staff

University Health News is produced by the award-winning editors and authors of Belvoir Media Group’s Health & Wellness Division. Headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., with editorial offices in Florida, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, … Read More

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