Working Smarter

Why Stress Makes Us Fat and Eat Junk

Posted by Joe Robinson

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YOU MAY HAVE noticed something peculiar when you are under a lot of stress. Free will vanishes, and you become a refrigerator magnet, pulled to the doors of your Frigidaire, where the likes of Haagen Dazs and Sara Lee beckon. The metallic handles of your cupboards reel you in like a tractor beam for the Doritos. You are no longer in control of your ingestion system. Stress is.

It turns out that chronic stress can not only lead to cardiovascular disease, strokes, irritable bowel disease and a host of other health problems, it also increases your appetite, and, in particular, your craving for the most fatty foods. It’s a phenomenon that should make stress management one of the top diets on the planet. I call it the Stress-Free Diet in my stress management training programs, which show how to reduce reflex weight gain without counting a single calorie, simply by managing our reactions to demands. 


In laboratory experiments, stressed rats are more gung-ho to run mazes in search of food and will overdo their feasts on sweetened milk and pellets, leading to excess weight compared with their relaxed counterparts. Research on humans shows that stress also beefs up our food consumption (Epel, Lapidus, Mc/Ewen, Brownell). And the food we reach for in larger quantities when we’re stressed is high-fat and high-sugar fare, as reported in a University of Michigan study (Habhab, Sheldon, Loeb).

Of course, stress also creates other behaviors that contribute to weight gain and poor health—more alcohol use, less exercise, and negative emotions that lead to what’s known as emotional eating. With stress levels rising in an always-on, leaner workplace, understanding the connection of stress to something as visible and annoying as a bulging waistline could be a real opportunity to take on the stress in our lives that too often remains an invisible saboteur in veins and organs, out of sight and mind.

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How does stress makes us fat? When something overloads your ability to cope with it, setting off the stress-response, be it 300 emails, a boss directive, or traffic, an ancient part of your brain takes command to prepare your body to fight or run from the danger. It sends out signals through a cascade of chemicals that marshal all the body’s energetic resources to push blood to the arms and legs for battle.

Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline flood through your system. Fats, sugars, and other sources of fuel are diverted from parts of the body that aren’t crucial to the moment of survival.

There’s no need for energy storage, digestion, tissue repair, or even immune function. Those systems are all put on hiatus, while the body makes its final stand against the crisis. So in the first minutes of a stressful event, appetite is actually suppressed. Digestion is shut down. You need all hands on deck to power through the danger. That burns up resources as long as the danger signal remains turned on.


Since this is the 21st century, the stress triggers are almost always social in nature, not a threat to life or limb, but our physiology knows only one drill—keep the resources burning full-tilt until we are out of harm’s way. Work and family stressors, unlike the kind of dangers our brain was built for—encounters with tigers or cavemen strangers—aren’t brief affairs. They tend to hang on day after day, week after week, or we have a series of stressors during the day. Each bout has to be followed by a recovery phase, in which the sympathetic nervous system steps in to move the body back into balance. It wants work-life balance, or homeostasis in physiology-speak, all systems stabilized.

Herein lies the stress-fat nexus. The energy we burn up has to be replaced. And how do we do that? When the danger has passed, the body shifts into consuming and storage modes again. We get appetite cues that it’s time to eat—or at least two-thirds of us do—and time for storage of fuel, such as fat, for future needs. Long-term stress sets off a chronic need to replenish coping resources, so appetites are going to get ongoing stimulation.

Let’s take a look at how we are designed to eat our way back from danger and crisis. There are two basic phases of the stress-response. In the first phase, activation, a chemical known as CRH (corticoid-releasing hormone) is dispatched from the hypothalamus. It, in turn, triggers the release of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) from the pituitary, which results in, among other things, the release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal glands.

The adrenal medulla unleashes stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, while the adrenal cortex releases steroid hormones—cortisol and cortisone, known as glucocorticoids, which will steer the regenerating processes of the second phase, post-stress.

A typical stressor may have a period of minutes for the activation phase, followed by several hours of recovery. As the CRH component fades, it leaves glucocorticoids in charge. Their goal is to get the sympathetic nervous system to step in and replace lost resources, store fat for the next emergency, and pound calories.


“Glucocorticoids act on the hypothalamus to stimulate appetite,” report researchers Luba Sominsky and Sarah Spencer in a study titled, “Eating Behavior and Stress: A Pathway to Obesity.” Glucocorticoids boost food intake by their effect on several appetite-regulating agents. They reduce the ability of appetite inhibitors such as leptin and insulin to regulate eating, and they cause excess fat deposition, particularly in the spare-tire department.

Chronic stress increases a key hormone in the appetite equation—ghrelin, sometimes called the hunger hormone, which makes us want to eat, according to a study at Utah Southwestern (Sakata, Rovinsky, Anderson, Jung, Birnbaum, Yanagisawa, Elquist, Nestler). When ghrelin calls, so does the refrigerator.

A stressful event that touches off a couple of hours of appetite craving once a month, isn’t going to drive massive weight gain, but chronic stress as well as repeated events daily that set off a cycle of glucocorticoid waves that make us want to fill our faces with not just any food, but Twinkies and burgers are the real problem. That’s most of us today.

Stanford University biologist and primate expert Robert Sapolsky in his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, pinpoints the troublemaker as frequent intermittent stressors. He cites the example of a typical morning in the life of a working person. "He sleeps through the alarm clock first thing in the morning, total panic. Calms down when it looks like the commute isn’t so bad today, maybe he won’t be late for work after all. Gets panicked all over again when the commute then turns awful. Calms down at work when it looks like the boss is away for the day and she didn’t notice he was late. Panics all over again when it becomes clear the boss is there and did notice.”

Each one of those incidents is followed by a glucocorticoid wave that lingers for hours, and with it, the need to recover resources. “Guess who’s going to be scarfing up Krispy Kremes all day at work,” says Sapolsky.


Stress management, or as you can think of it, the Stress-Free Diet, prevents the constant activation of the stress-response and follow-up calorie-bingeing, fat storage in the abdomen, and all the other hazardous outcomes of chronic stress, including those that can come from excess weight gain—including diabetes and cardiovascular issues. There are no unpleasant foods to eat.

Instead, we learn how to manage our emotional reactions to events, turn off the false danger signals behind stressors, and argue with ourselves and the false beliefs in our head set off by an ancient defense mechanism that thinks it’s 100,000 B.C. Turn off the danger signal, something we learn how to do in my stress management training, and the stress-response stops in four minutes—along with the glucocortisoid cycle that fuels the trips to the vending machine, Starbucks, or kitchen.

In exchange for not biting when a stressful event happens and going off on an autopilot appetite stimulant track, we eat, not when trouble calls, but when we are actually hungry.

If you would like details on my stress management training programs to control weight swings, anxiety, overwhelm and burnout, please click the button below for more information.

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Tags: stress and weight gain, stress and obesity, stress and eating

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