Stress, Cortisol and Weight Gain: Is Stress Sabotaging Your Weight & Health?


Weight Concerns: A Top Stress Producer for Women

A recent survey showed Americans find personal health a much more stressful topic than even a year ago. What many of us don’t realize (and what scientists are just starting to understand) is that dieting, the most common approach to managing weight concerns for Americans, doesn’t offer any real answers for the majority of us.

Dieting just confuses the picture by adding more stress that can lead to health risks that have nothing to do with too much body fat.

What’s more, our reaction to stress very often ends up adding even more pounds – exactly opposite to the effect we’re seeking. The recent explosion of fat camps for adults or weight loss spas are also fostering more anxiety around weight issues, futher aggravating matters.

Cortisol – The New Diet Buzzword

Maybe you’ve already heard about cortisol. It’s a hormone the body produces under stress. At least one recent fitness book has gotten a lot of attention by pointing out a potential link between high levels of cortisol and excess abdominal fat. The theory is that dieting – which produces stress for most of us – increases cortisol levels.

“Whether the theoretical link between cortisol and excess abdominal fat is accurate remains to be seen.” And for women who have dieted on and off again throughout life, they may end up looking more like “apples” than “pears” because of bigger waistlines that may be associated with high cortisol levels. The negative effect isn’t all cosmetic, either. Real health risks accompany excess fat in the abdomen – like increased chances of developing diabetes and even heart disease.

Whether the theoretical link between cortisol and excess abdominal fat is accurate remains to be seen. But too much cortisol in the blood is also suspect when it comes to other health problems.

Women Who Constantly Restrict Food Have Higher Levels Of Cortisol

A study published this month demonstrated that women who constantly restrict food (that is, who constantly diet) have higher levels of cortisol, and the researchers speculate that this may spell bad news for bone health. Other studies suggest cortisol levels may be a predictor of fractures for older adults.

Stress hormones aside, we also know that stress makes it harder for women to put their good intentions into action. It puts us on edge, sometimes making the least challenge something that causes us to mindlessly revert back to old, unhealthy habits.

4 Tips for Reducing Stress

So how do we achieve personal health goals without adding to our stress?

Consider these healthy lifestyle strategies for feeling great!

1. Feed yourself well.

    • Forget calories and fat grams. Instead, focus on feeding yourself balanced meals and snacks when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re satisfied. Most of us get hungry about every 3-5 hours, but if you’re not sure when you’re hungry and when you’re not, try putting yourself on a schedule that starts with breakfast and includes lunch and dinner and 2-3 snacks, if hungry.
    • Also be sure to eat balanced meals that include Grains/Starchy Vegetables, Protein Foods and Fruits &/or Vegetables. If you’re particularly hungry between meals, make sure your snacks include Protein Foods, which may help you be better satisfied.
    • For a list of the types of foods that qualify as Grains/Starchy Vegetables, Protein Foods and Fruits &/or Vegetables, see our healthy eating recipes section.

2. Give up notions about “good,” “bad,” and “forbidden” foods.

    • Bottom line: If we forbid a food, it often makes us want it more. So learn to eat all foods, and learn to tune in to what you really want, not just what you think you want because you “shouldn’t” have it.

3. Move your body regularly.

    • Yes, we’re talking about physical activity. There’s much more to physical activity than burning calories. It’s a tremendous stress reducer, and its feel-good benefits kick in almost immediately! Make your regular physical activity something you look forward to by coming up with fun ways to move your body. Try dancing, skiing, snowshoeing, gardening, playing catch with the kids.
    • Read Related FitBriefing: Moving for Life. And, remember, you don’t need to devote long periods every day to physical activity. If your day is already too busy, you can work your activity in to your daily routine and still get important benefits.

4. Think positively about yourself and your body.

    • At Green Mountain, we help women start to think positively about themselves and their bodies. Indeed, this skill is just as important as how you feed yourself and how you move your body in helping you reach personal health goals. How could that be?
    • Imagine you’re walking down the street. You’ve been eating well, you’ve been moving your body regularly, and you’re feeling great. You have been wanting to get fitter for some time now, and you feel like you’ve gotten off to a great start. Then you happen to glance over in the store window and see your reflection. How do you feel now?

If you’re like many of the women who come to Green Mountain, those good feelings you were enjoying are gone. You now despair, wondering whether you will ever be able to reach your goals. How you think about yourself has just become a major obstacle to your success.

How Do You Eliminate the Obstacle of How You Think About Yourself?

By starting to accept yourself now…just as you are…no matter whether you think you need to lose weight or get in better shape or whatever. Negative self-talk has tremendous power to knock us off track. By starting to support ourselves in our minds now, we help ourselves stay on track with our fitness efforts. Accepting yourself does not mean that there isn’t room for improvement. It just helps you treat yourself well so that you can better find your way to personal health goals.

Take time for yourself every day.
Whether it’s 10 minutes to reflect and relax, or whether it’s some fun activity that will revitalize you, it’s critical to do it! Make a list of activities that you really like and try to find time for at least one every day. Here are a few activities to get you thinking about what you can do to help yourself to regular “time-outs.”

  • Get a massage or foot-rub.
  • Send/buy yourself fresh flowers.
  • Listen to a relaxation audiotape.
  • Read for fun.
  • Take a long, relaxing bubble bath.
  • Fly a kite.
  • Do a crossword puzzle.
  • Take a walk on the beach.
  • Take a yoga class.

Is stress is a major trigger to your emotional or binge eating problem?

Consider our time-tested behavioral approach to healthy weight loss  for women …. we can help you achieve lasting success

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About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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