Do stress levels get in the way of losing fat

16 Nov 2012 2:43 AMChristine Barnes

The best way of losing fat is perhaps not to make such a big deal about it or, indeed, not make a big deal about much at all! Being anxious about losing weight (or about anything) certainly doesn’t help for anxiety might trigger your body to gain weight, and being really stressed can actually prevent you from losing weight even as you reduce your calorie intake.

Physical or psychological stress causes the body to react the same way. Our bodies interpret stress as danger and as a result we release cortisol into the blood stream. One of the effects of cortisol is to tell the body to store energy by holding onto calories in case we need it at some point in the future. We tend to store that energy as fat around our waist as its easy and fast for us to access it there in times of need. 

Stress can therefore make us hungry because the body wants to fill its fat stores. In the case of chronic (ongoing) stress, we continue to pump out cortisol leaving us in a state of being constantly hungry and yearning for, especially, carboyhydrates (sugars including bread, cakes, ice-cream, potato chips, alcohol and soft drinks). 

In addition, and in an inverse relationship, the more cortisol we pump out of the adrenal glands (that sit just above our kidneys), the less testosterone we produce.  Basically speaking, testosterone is muscle-building and cortisol is fat building. In other words, being stressed can encourage a process which delivers a reduction in muscle mass and an increase in fat (especially around the middle – “visceral fat”).

So cortisol encourages the body to store fat and fat is particularly dangerous to our health and longevity.  For example, excess fat around our middle can raise cholesterol and insulin levels setting the scene for future heart disease, diabetes and cancer. 

The good news is that gentle exercise reduces stress and anxiety, and at the same time regulates insulin and reduces cholesterol.  Any movement, even walking helps clear the mind whilst providing the body with a physical outlet to detox excess cortisol.  Getting out of the office at lunchtime and taking a walk can lower cortisol levels by up to 15%.

Certainly, calorie restriction is not always the answer to permanent fat loss.  Food choices are more important. The first step in any fat loss program is to check in with your stress levels.  Introduce stress management techniques and increase frequent high quality protein, plant foods and healthy fats.  Otherwise your initial fat loss may be short lived and your body may revert back to its original weight due, in part, to the constant exposure to stress.

So if you are eager to lose fat, be wary of stress!  Reducing calories excessively may lead to stress.  Excessive calorie restriction can cause the body to think there is about to be a famine.  This will initiate the body to store fat. Paradoxically the body responds much more positively to eating more frequent smaller meals that contain protein and fats (and not carbohydrate).  The result is that your body and mind will feel more relaxed, and your body’s metabolism will be stimulated to burn fat just by making the appropriate food choices and not by going hungry.

If you do feel a sugar-craving coming on, reduce your body’s stress by eating a small portion of protein (e.g, chicken, meat, eggs, nuts, peanut butter). It’ll help with your goal of losing fat as well as relieve your stress load.




Peeke, P., MD, MPH, a Prevention advisor and the author of Body for Life for Women.

Epel, E., PhD, a researcher on stress eating at the University of California, San Francisco.