The relationship between stress and weight

Stress permeates many aspects of all of our lives and can be brought on by work, your home life and a myriad of other factors. Chronic stress can lead to a number of mental and physical health problems (such as weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes) that we need to overcome in order to improve our quality of life. 

What is stress?

Stress looks at your personal response to your environment. Everyone will experience stress in their life. When we think of stress, most of us see this as just a negative thing. However, while there is negative stress, there is also positive stress.

Eustress vs. distress

Positive stress is called Eustress and helps to improve motivation, short-term energy, concentration, performance and coping mechanisms. Eustress is not chronic and therefore will go away after a short period of time. Eustress can occur when you are moving houses, starting a new job, received a promotion, having a child, getting married, going on holiday, amongst other situations.

Negative stress, is referred to as distress. This often results in anxiety, displeasure, a decrease in performance, mental distress and decline in physical health. Distress can be caused by a variety of factors, including: divorce, death of a loved one, unemployment, injury, hospitalisation, interpersonal relationship conflict, and many more. 

What is obesity?

Obesity is most often classified using body mass index (BMI). If you have a BMI more than 30kg/m2 then you are classified as being obese. A high BMI means that you currently weight to much for your height. Obesity is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. It is important to remember that while genes do play a role, they are not the sole cause. Therefore, it is important to look at all possible environmental factors such as diet, exercise, diseases and stress.

Is there a link between stress and obesity?

The rate of obesity continues to climb annually. While we all know that eating too much and moving too little can contribute to obesity, most of us haven’t considered a link to stress. Did you know that around 43% of people use food to cope with stress! 

So what is the link between stress and weight gain?

When we experience sudden severe stress, such as in a life-threatening situation, our body enters “flight or fight” mode. When this happens, our nervous system will free up stored sugar and fat in the body and send it to different parts of our body for energy. Our nervous system will stop anybody function that is not required for immediate survival, this includes the effects of insulin.

What is insulin (and what does it do)?

Insulin is a hormone that is produced to help our bodies use sugar. If insulin isn’t working, then any food we eat that is broken down to different sugars will remain in our bloodstream and not be moved into the cells–resulting in an increase in blood sugar levels. In a healthy situation, this stress response will disappear relatively quickly and your body will enter a “rest and digest” mode, where body functions return to normal.

At first glance, it doesn't make sense that long-term stress will increase the risk for obesity, because how can you put on weight if your body is using more stored sugar and fat? However, while this process happens during sudden high-stress situations it does not occur in chronic long-term stressful situations. This likely happens because over time our bodies become blunted to the stress response–which means our bodies no longer recognise that we might need more energy during stressful situations. Chronic stress will often result in the increased storage of fat and sugar in the body. Over time this can result in obesity, with fat build up around our middles.

The effect of chronic stress on hunger

Chronic stress can influence hunger and satiety hormones.


Leptin is better known as your satiety hormone. It is produced in your fat cells where it has the ability to suppress your appetite, reducing your caloric intake. This hormone is also involved in regulating your energy metabolism and increasing your energy expenditure.


Ghrelin, the hunger hormone, is in many regards the complete opposite to leptin. Ghrelin is released primarily from the stomach lining, travelling through the blood to the brain. Ghrelin levels work on a cycle that increases before meals and decrease after meals.

When we stress there is an increase in cortisol levels, which can result in blunting leptin response. This will result in a lack of satiety, which can result in overeating. Overeating during chronic stress is more likely to occur in women than in men, as men are more likely to cope using alcohol or through smoking. Women who typically restrict their intake or monitor their intake routinely, are often the women who eat more under stressful conditions. Therefore, chronic stress is more likely to result in obesity in women compared to men.

Download our Honest Guide to Weight Management to learn more about building life-long healthy eating habits.

Download the Honest Guide to Weight Management and build life-long healthy eating habits

Do you crave sugar when you are stressed?

When experiencing long-term stress we tend to crave high-sugar and high-fat foods and not a higher calorie intake. This is because these releases feel-good hormones, such as dopamine, in our brain, that we crave during times of stress.

However, this does lead to a vicious cycle.

Dopamine and chronic stress

An increase in weight, that can be caused by overeating due to chronic stress, will often result in a blunted dopamine response. This is because when overeating during stress we tend to eat a lot of sweets, baked goods and pastries. When you eat a large number of satisfying foods, your brain no longer recognises it as satisfying, resulting in a blunted dopamine response. This blunted response results in less satisfaction after a meal. However, because we all still crave satisfaction after eating a delicious meal to decrease stress, a blunted dopamine response often leads to overeating as we are seeking that feeling of pleasure.

So as you can see, stress can be linked to obesity in numerous ways. However, it is important to remember that while stress is a contributing factor for obesity formation, it is important to remember that obesity is caused by many other factors as well. Therefore, controlling your stress levels can help to start the weight loss process if you follow a healthy diet, exercise regularly and ensure you get enough sleep.

How do you counteract stress?

If you're looking to counteract stress and manage your weight effectively, then you can do the following:

  • Get your 8 hours of sleep
  • Avoid poor food choices when stressed
  • Make use of meditation and mindfulness
  • Drink less caffeine and relax more
  • Speak to people close to you and let them help

Download our Guide to Stress, Mindfulness & Meditation.

Learn healthy stress management techniques with our Guide to Stress, Mindfulness & Meditation

DNAfit also offers a stress and sleep report as part of our Health Fit plan. In your stress report, we look at genes related to your stress response. The COMT (warrior vs. strategist) gene and BDNF both provide insight into how your body tolerates stress.

Stress is personal and differs from person to person, and how we respond to stress and external stressors is just as unique. By doing the DNAfit test you will not only receive information about how you respond to stress but you’ll also receive personalised techniques that you can incorporate into your lifestyle in order to better handle it.

You don’t have to let stress control you.

There are a variety of ways to fight against stress and by realising what it does to you, you can take the first steps towards being proactive and making the relevant interventions needed to live a healthier life.

Get Health Fit - a comprehensive plan that gives you insights to your stress tolerance and sleep quality.

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