Is Stress Sabotaging Your Weight-Loss Efforts?


Photo by Ian Hooten/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Stress doesn’t show up just as wrinkles on your face — you may also be wearing it around your waist. High levels of stress and depression make it tough to lose weight and stick to the strategies you know will help you slim down, according to a new study in the journal Obesity, published Sept. 24.

The stress-fat connection isn’t a new one. In fact, most of us are all too familiar with the impulse to scarf half a dozen doughnuts after a rough day. In a 2013 American Psychological Association (APA) survey, 37 percent of people admitted that they’d overeaten or indulged in unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress. Nearly half of stress eaters said that these “slip-ups” occurred at least weekly.

The question is: How, exactly, do stress and depression affect our attempts to slim down? To find out, researchers from Harvard and SUNY Upstate Medical University tracked the stress and weight-loss progress of 257 overweight adults over a two-year period, during which the participants tried to lose at least 5 percent of their body weight.

Not surprisingly, stress emerged as a significant weight-loss saboteur. At the six-month mark, high-stress individuals had dropped only about 3 percent of their body weight, on average, compared with nearly 6 percent among low-stress participants. The weight loss gap had widened further by the end of the study: After two years, the stressed-out dieters had still lost only about 3 percent of their body weight, while the carefree folks had managed to exceed the goal, shedding an average of nearly 7 percent of their body weight.

Related: 7 Ways to Beat Stress Fat

The stress-prone people were also less likely to stick to the suggested weight-loss aids, such as keeping a diet-and-exercise log and participating in coaching sessions.

"The stress and weight loss connection is really twofold," said Katie Rickel, a licensed clinical psychologist at Structure House, a residential weight loss facility in Durham, N.C. "There are some physiological reasons that stress makes it harder to lose weight — the [stress] hormone cortisol can sometimes increase the amount of fat you’re storing. But there’s also an indirect relationship: When you’re stressed, it’s harder to follow through on healthy behaviors."

In the study, the researchers, who could not be reached for comment, pointed to the latter reason as a major factor in the stressed-out dieters’ poor progress. As they wrote, “Depression and stress may limit weight loss by negatively impacting behaviors that promote it.”

While it would be nice if we could all zap stress instantly, the fact is that most of us are facing chronic brain drain … and we can’t necessarily make it go away. In the APA survey, the most common sources of mental tension were money, work, and the economy — three stressors that are admittedly tough to eliminate overnight. (That may explain why only about a third of adults think they effectively manage their anxiety.)

Luckily, there are ways to slim down even when you’re mentally taxed:

Simplify your exercise plan

Overwhelmed at work? Now is not the time to take on a complicated, high-commitment exercise program, Rickel told Yahoo Health. Instead, just focus on being active, period — and in a way that you enjoy. “Do the kind of exercise you like, that’s not too complicated, and that doesn’t require a lot of thought,” she said. “That might mean going to a spin class or putting in one of your favorite DVDs.”

That way, being active will help you decompress, rather than the idea of it inciting dread. Plus, if you’re already familiar with the workout, you won’t have to expend any mental energy figuring out new exercises, Rickel said.

Related: 10 Stress-Busting Strategies for Your Daily Commute

Use healthful eating as a defense

When you’re burning the candle at both ends, it’s tempting to grab whatever food is readily available — and all too often, that means a bag of chips from the vending machine or a handful of candy from the dish on your desk.

But the truth is, “Managing your food can actually be a stress-management tactic,” Rickel said. “When we’re under stress, we’re usually facing something that we feel is not under our control. And food is something you can always manage. So rather than seeing eating as an additional stressor, see it as a way to bring order and organization into your life.”

Take a few minutes to plan your meals for the day, then jot them down on your to-do list. For example, add “Eat a grilled chicken and veggie salad for lunch” to your daily schedule. That will help you stay on track and will also give you a sense of accomplishment when you’re able to cross that item off the list. “That’s going to make you feel like you’re better able to manage whatever external stressors you’re dealing with,” Rickel told Yahoo Health.

Stick to a food routine

No one likes to eat the same old oatmeal day in and day out, but a predictable diet can actually make it easier to achieve your goals. “Having to make decisions can add to our stress,” explained Rickel. That’s why she suggests sticking to the same few foods, especially during temporary periods of intense stress — say, when you’re up against a deadline at work or in the midst of a big move.