Stress-Linked Weight Gain Not All About Calories, Study Suggests

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Stress Shown To Slow Metabolic Rate In Women

stress linked weight gain studyIt’s normal to eat when you’re stressed sometimes.  You’ve had a hard day at work so you go to a drive through restaurant for a cheeseburger and fries and try to unwind. Doing that time and time again, you notice your weight begin to creep up.  You think to yourself, “Geez, I really need to cut back from all this stress eating or go on a diet.” But what you may not know is that it can be the stress itself that’s throwing off your metabolism and causing you to gain weight.  It’s not a simple matter of more calories consumed.

The Ohio State University Study On Stress and Metabolism

Ohio State University (OSU) researchers found that women who were stressed in a 24-hour time period before consuming a high-fat meal similar to that of a two-patty hamburger and french fries — an often go-to meal when people are stressed — burned 104 fewer calories after eating than non-stressed women.

58 women (with an average age of 53) went through the experiment twice.  They were given three measured meals the previous day, then fasted for 12 hours before consuming a high-fat meal on the day of the study.


“We figured stress and depression alter so much in our lives, physiologically, but no one has really looked at metabolism, so it was an interesting  opportunity to see how they might affect the metabolic process,” said Kiecolt-Glaser.

The Body Burns Its Largest Percentage Of Daily Calories Resting

After the meal, the women reclined for seven hours while their resting metabolic rates – or resting energy expenditure  – were measured.  Resting energy expenditure accounts for 65 to 70 percent of all calories burned daily in the average person.

Read This Related Article: De-Stress More Healthfully
To objectively measure stress levels before each round of the experiment, researchers asked  the women to complete a daily inventory of stressful events (DISE) test. The most common stressful events women reported involved interpersonal problems, such work-related issues, spousal disagreements or difficulty with children.


“These are things that tend to be the most stressful for people,” Kiecolt-Glaser said. “And I think people are still thinking about things and remembering them and still dealing with them [the next day.]”

Analysis Of The DISE Test Results

Researchers found that women who had at least one stressful event in the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than women who reported no stressors.  Additionally, women who had reported the stressful events demonstrated higher insulin levels after their meals. This data not only supports other research suggesting that stress and depression may promote insulin resistance, but also offers a mechanism for how that might occur.

Yo-Yo Dieting and Weight Worries Also Cause Stress

The OSU study supports our non-diet approach to healthy weight management.  Many women automatically feel stressed when dieting, and we’ve often written about how dieting actually increases the risk for weight gain. Yo-Yo dieting,  where a person loses weight, gains it back (often with additional weight), and diets again only to repeat the cycle, is linked to chronic inflammation, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and unhealthy body fat.

Intuitive Eating Can Help You Reduce Stress

Mindful or intuitive eating leads to healthier eating for many weight strugglers. Last week, in fact, another study showed that intuitive eating programs for weight management may be much more effective than traditional weight loss programs.

So, when you find yourself stressed and/or gaining weight, try to avoid restrictive eating because it may only add to your weight problems. Take a step back, breathe or meditate, and look for ways to de-stress healthfully – including practicing mindful eating — to manage your healthy weight.
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10 Responses (Add Yours)

  • I really wish I could convince my mother in law to stop trying to diet. She is always trying something new and despite the fact that we’ve now gotten her to accept that she is 67 years old and a grandma and that no one can reasonably expect her to look like she did at 20, she is still stuck in that diet mentality. I see the stress that weighs on her when she is trying to decide whether to eat or not.

  • Laura Brooks says:

    It’s difficult to watch someone we love struggling with food, eating and weight. So many women (and girls) start dieting at a young age and restriction becomes the norm for many years of their life. We encourage you to share some of our articles about the diet mentality with your mother-in-law, and see if she’s willing to take our diet mentality quiz: http://www.fitwoman.com/fitbriefing/is-the-diet-mentality/ Just learning that there’s a different way to manage a healthy weight (one that doesn’t involve fighting your body) can be a the starting point for a new way of thinking, feeling and living.

    • Yeah, I was an intern at Green Mountain and am a certified fitness professional. I have shared with her many different resources concerning the topic, but she is very set in her ways because Weight Watchers worked for her once in her life and now she is willing to give into any diet that might give her that same success or feeling. It’s truly a cycle that is hard to break.

      • Laura says:

        Yes, it’s a cycle that can start very early in life, too. As a fitness professional, do you talk to your clients about healthy eating strategies and stress management?

        • I do within the scope of my practice and certification. I talk to them about mindful eating and, as a yoga instructor, help them practice breathing techniques, meditation, and other techniques for stress management. We also do work with antecedent and consequence control strategies and try to get to the root of what they really want out of our sessions. A lot of times it’s not just about the weight loss, but rather a need to find acceptance with who they are and gain a positive body image at any size.

          • Laura Brooks says:

            That’s great to hear. If you had to say what most of the women you see want out of your sessions, what would that be?

  • samantha bullock says:

    This is a very informative post. I think everyone should know about this. We often blame our calorie intake for our weight gain when in fact it’s stress that’s really the cause. In a way, this is true for me before. When there are days that I don’t feel good about myself, I occupy my free time by eating sweets.

    _____________ Paragon Fitness

  • Laura says:

    Hi Samantha – thanks for your comment. Weight issues are so complex and changing how we think, feel, and habitually act are the real challenge of managing a healthy weight, not calorie intake. Sounds like you – like many of us – have times where your negative self talk takes over. To help with that, we promote ways in which women can stop/change negative thoughts and practice self care.

    http://www.fitwoman.com/blog/2013/08/12/40-self-care-ideas/

    http://www.fitwoman.com/fitbriefing/stopping-the-negative-self-talk-i-feel-fat/

    Give it a try and let us know if it helps!

  • I think the thing they end up wanting the most is to feel good. We talk a lot in my sessions about what that means as an intangible as well as a measurable result. What does feeling good mean to you and how can we tell if you’ve reached that goal? I think a lot of women hire a personal trainer (more so than men, although I’ve had my share of male clients) because they like the companionship that a trainer can provide. I always encourage them to build their support system along the way too. Because, my ultimate goal is to work myself out of a job, so I want them to have the skills, the knowledge, and the support to continue past when we’re finished and then maybe to come back from time to time to check in or update their routine. I want them to be empowered by what they choose to do to stay feeling good.

    • Laura Brooks says:

      Support is key. There’s a lot of research that shows how having a ‘fitness’ partner can help women achieve their weight loss goals.

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