4 Sneaky ways stress is stopping your weight loss

Stress is nasty.

In the right amounts, it’s what gets you moving and working to your full potential, but anything over that limit, and you’re doing damage.

I see this in clients again and again: Stress has a ton of effects on your weight. Here’s how it works and why.


Stress and weight

Have you heard off ‘non-caloric weight gain’?

It’s where, no matter what you eat, your body stores food as fat instead of burning it. Even if you’re eating fewer calories.

Sounds like a nightmare, right? It get’s worse.

If stress gets really bad, your body starts to burn its own muscle mass.

Stress plays a huge role in this process. It’s why you can follow the strictest of diets and not see any weight loss – your body chemistry has other ideas.

Diet Stress

And here’s a wake-up call:

Sometimes the stress you put yourself under when you go on a diet can result in enough stress to stop weight loss. It’s a total lose-lose situation… but not for the weight.

But why? You’re trying to be healthy, to look after yourself. Why would trying to do that create the opposite effect? It sounds like it makes no sense, until you understand a bit about stress.

What is stress?

Stress is any real or imagined threat to your safety or wellbeing.

So, as is often the case, if you hate your body, believe you aren’t worth much and feel like you have to change to love yourselves or be loved by others, that’s a huge threat to your wellbeing, which results in stress… which leads to more weight.

Vicious cycle.

So, what happens in your body when you’re stressed and how does this impact your weight?

4 Sneaky ways stress impacts your weight:

1) Cortisol (AKA: Science time)

Cortisol is one of the main chemical products of stress in your body.

Certain amounts of it are needed for normal metabolic functioning (like life) while too much of it can be unhealthy. Large amounts of cortisol in your system over longer periods of time, as many of us experience in our normal lives, has a variety of ill effects, one of which is weight gain or the inability to lose weight.

Why this is, is pretty scientific and complex, but as this study explains, basically, cortisol slows down metabolism, which means your body slows,  calorie burning slows, and weight goes on. They “suggest that chronic stress, whether psychological and/or physical, exerts an intense effect upon body composition” – in other words, stress makes you gain fat.

Similarly, this study suggests that it is stress and the related cortisol response that may be to blame for the almost universal failure of calorie restricted diets to keep weight off long term. They say that caloric restriction is stressful to our bodies and releases cortisol, which really strongly affects how our metabolism works (and not in favour of weight loss), while caloric monitoring stresses us out in our heads.

The danger here, they say, is that if you are following a calorie restricted diet and not monitoring your food intake, then you may not actually feel the stress you are under. Our mental stress levels do not always match what is actually going on with our bodies.

So, you could be greatly increasing your cortisol levels, and slowing down your metabolism, and not even feel it.

The diet you’re on might be one of the reasons your weight isn’t budging.

2) Digestion

Your digestive health is everything. If you have an unhealthy digestive system, you are going to struggle to lose body fat.

You have a massive amount of bacteria living in your digestive system that help you break down and use your food, make hormones, and regulate and repair your body and brain.

When you get stressed, so do your tiny bacterial gut-buddies, and they don’t handle it so well.

This study asserts that “psychological stress has profound effects on gastrointestinal function…” and not in a good way, while this study says that their “…results support the emerging concept that perturbed host-microbiota interactions resulting in low-grade inflammation can promote adiposity…”.

Which just means that they found evidence (in mice) that if your gut bacteria is upset, you can gain body fat.

So yes, the stress you feel in your head can get all the way down into your gut and mess up how you’re digesting food.

3) Fatigue

Stress makes you tired.

And when you get tired, you

  • don’t want to cook, 
  • don’t want to exercise, 
  • don’t want to think, 
  • and making good decisions becomes just that little bit harder. 

Fatigue also leads to your body wanting high energy foods, or sugar rushes, which feed directly back into the fatigue. One of the most common struggle clients share with me is that when they feel stressed and tired, they have no self-control – which is totally true.

4) Emotional eating

While I am not against emotional eating as a strategic coping strategy, the kind of emotional eating caused by long-term stress isn’t good. It’s not something you consciously choose to do once in a while, but is far more pervasive. There is evidence that the hormonal changes caused by stress “may lead to increased consumption of ‘comfort’ food and obesity”. Well, no kidding – I think we could have all just told the researchers that.

These researchers claim that stress reduces “dietary restraint” and that participants ate a lot more sweets and low-quality carbohydrate/ saturated fat foods to make them feel better while they were stressed. They say their data “suggest that chronic stress can promote reward-associated behavior through reduced dietary restraint and consumption of food containing more carbohydrate and saturated fat.”

This means that being stressed makes you eat a lot of crap and can lead to weight gain.


So, if you’ve been struggling against weight gain or the inability to lose weight, perhaps it is the struggle that’s causing some of the problems. It’s a pretty complicated issues – you want to lose weight, but by trying to do so, you set yourself up for failure.

Which is also really stressful! So, what can you do?

Check out part 2 of this post. It’s filled with ideas and solutions for you to reduce your weight-loss stress and hopefully makes some progress.

So, while you wait, tell me in the comments: How do you feel about diets and weight loss? Are they a stressor for you?

About Samantha

Hello! I'm Sam and I'm an Eating Psychology Coach. I work with women who struggle with emotional eating and weight loss to develop new strategies and lifestyles so they can stop using food to cope, lose weight, and eat happy.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

2 thoughts on “4 Sneaky ways stress is stopping your weight loss

  • susiefruitcake

    Great blog post Samantha – really informative as always. I’m lucky that I don’t have issues with my weight but as someone who has issues with IBS I have developed a real interest in the role of the gut microbiome and the gut-brain connection. It’s fascinating stuff.