The Obesity-Stress Cycle

By Brenna Thompson, MS, RD, LD
August 21, 2012


Does your weight cause you anxiety? Do you feel depressed because you are not the same size you were 10, 20, or 30 years ago? For some people, their weight creates feelings of shame, guilt, and depression and all these emotions are a constant stress on them. For others, external stressors cause them to "stress" eat, and has led to an increase in body weight. Regardless of the source of stress that leads to excess weight, there's a lot you can do to conquer it.

Understanding the obesity-stress cycle

Are you like many of my clients who work fulltime and are the main caregiver for children and/or aging parents? You rush around all day taking care of everyone else, skipping breakfast and lunch, and arrive home starving at night, with only enough energy to microwave a, seemingly-healthy, frozen dinner. Now you wonder where these extra 15 pounds came from. But which came first, the stress of daily life or the weight gain?

Being overweight creates internal stress for many people. Researchers from around the world have noted that the risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders increases by approximately 25 percent when people are overweight or obese.¹ Clinically we see many women that are successful in their professional lives, but who are totally stressed out about their inability to lose weight. It's the one area of their lives that they describe as unmanageable. This affects their self-esteem and creates anxiety.

Don't underestimate the negative effects of stress on your body

Many mental health practitioners have also noticed an increase in the number of overweight and obese patients they treat who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Recent research shows that people suffering from PTSD have a 32.6 percent higher rate of obesity.² PTSD is not limited to those coming back from fighting in or living through a war. People who work in a high-stress job, live with an abusive spouse, or have lived through a major traumatic event have also been reported to experience PTSD symptoms.³ These symptoms may include difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritability, difficulty concentrating, depression, feelings of guilt or shame, unexplained aches and pains and ultimately,...weight gain.

Put an end to the obesity-stress cycle

A key strategy to decrease mental and physical stress and lose weight permanently is balanced eating. You might think you are too busy and stressed to eat in balance, but it's time to change your thinking. By providing your body with high-quality protein, carbohydrates and fat every 3-4 hours, you not only rev up your metabolism, but also give your body the ability to make the brain chemicals that combat stress by putting you in a good mood, increasing your self-esteem, and decreasing those uncontrollable cravings for high-sugar carbohydrates!

Eat a balanced breakfast to decrease your internal stress and prepare yourself to handle any external stresses that the day may bring. Instead of cereal with skim milk, create a balanced meal of eggs or nitrate-free sausage, veggies sautéed in butter, and half a banana. This type of breakfast will keep your blood sugar levels even and prevent you from grabbing a doughnut in the office lounge. If your hectic schedule keeps you from preparing meals, use the salad bar at your local grocery store to build a balanced lunch or quick supper. Fill your plate with veggies and dark leafy greens, then add some sliced chicken and drizzle on olive oil with vinegar for dressing.

For extra help with cravings...

Chronic stress causes the body to release stress hormones and insulin. Together, these hormones increase food-seeking behavior and may stimulate cravings, especially for unhealthy carbohydrates such as pastries, crackers, candy, soda and more. Improving your diet is the first step towards reducing stress, ending cravings and losing weight. If you feel you need additional help to end your cravings and manage stress, try Crave Control Plus, a supplement designed by our founder, Darlene Kvist, to help people kick their love affair with diet soda and processed carbs.

The next time you find yourself stressed about your weight or being stressed out by your boss, reach for a balanced snack instead of a brownie. You will find it easier to think through the situation and you'll keep yourself on the right track towards a healthy weight.

For more information on the topic of stress, listen our podcast: Using Food to Manage Stress.

1 Scott KM, McGeeMA, Wells JE, Oakley Browne MA. Obesity and Mental Disorders in the adult General Population. Journal of Pychosomatic Research. 2008 Jan; 64(1):97-105.
2 Lisa K. Diamond. Links Between Obesity and Mental Health. March 1, 2010.
3 Fernandez ID, Su H, Winters PC, Liang H. Association of workplace chronic and acute stressors with employee weight status: data from worksites in turmoil. Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine. 2010 Jan; 52 Suppl 1:S34-41.

About the author

Brenna loves nutrition and its life-changing effects. With an active lifestyle, she knows firsthand how to use the power of good nutrition to stay energized. She is a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian through the Minnesota Board of Dietetics and Nutrition. She received her B.S. in dietetics from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and completed her dietetic internship at West Virginia University Hospital, Morgantown. Brenna also received a M.S. in applied nutrition, with an emphasis on education, from Northeastern University. She worked as a clinical and wellness dietitian for the Phoebe Putney Memorial Health System in Albany, Georgia.

View all posts by Brenna Thompson, MS, RD, LD

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