Diet therapy

Is stress making us fat?

We all need a little bit of stress in our lives or otherwise we would die of boredom.

But are we having to deal with too much stress these days? As our world changes around us, people loose their jobs; finances dry up; the speed of everything happening around us quickens..does this environmental stress affect our health and if so what can we do about it?

Defining Stress

  • Stress tolerance varies individually-What is stressful to one person may not be to another.
  • People can adapt. Those who are used to high levels can often cope better than those who haven’t.
  • Symptoms vary e.g :
          • a knotted stomach, unable to eat.
          • exhaustion, unable to sleep
          • chest pain
          • depression and wanting to give up
          • a high state of anxiety, panic attacks,sweating
          • loss of concentration, irritability, fidgeting
          • headaches
          • loss of appetite
          • disregard for self
  • Triggers- Any situation or set of conditions that cause anxiety and an inability to cope. E.g – women this is often related to failing relationships (e.g. arguments with family or spouses/friends):
          • men it can relate to loss of authority or dislocation of skills within the workplace.
          • children it may be related to fear of family separation, failed relationships with peers or exam stress.

Hormonal changes

Hormones regulate body processes and there are several key hormones activated by stress.

  • Cortisol is the fight or flight response that historically takes us away from danger. High levels of corisol also over time increases abdominal fat along with our risk of developing coronary heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
  • Ghrelin increases feelings of hunger. This hormone increases with sleep deprivation. (Interestingly Ghrelin is also associated with growth hormone which explains why appetite increase as children grow).
  • Leptin increases feelings of fullness. This hormone may be depressed in those who are overweight or suffering from diabetes.

So the cycle begins..we get upset so we eat more – abdominal fat gathers- our sleep suffers.. we may feel hungrier..we gain more weight.  Interestingly people who have less abdominal fat to start with are less likely to gather it during times of stress than those people who already have a head start.

Things you can do to kerb the cycle:

  • Be alert to the warning signs of stress e.g. anxiety, depression, sleepless nights and seek help.
  • Eat regularly on time rather than continuous snacking
  • Never skip meals
  • Always have breakfast
  • Push up your fluid intake as this distributes energy around the body
  • Exercise daily to control weight..the endophins (hormones) released raise the “feel good” factors
  • Aim for 8+ hrs sleep each night and even if you find it hard to sleep learn how to relax.
  • Record your food and fluid intake and note down also how you are feeling and you will soon see a correlation.
  • Avoid Alcohol because while it may initially seem to relax you it alters perception of time and will make it harder to make the very decisions that would help you work your way out of the stress.
  • Seek support from your family, friends and work mates because a problem shared is often a problem halved.

For more information about how to switch off this weight gaining cycle contact us now.

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


Leave a Reply

Also in Diet Therapy View all »

Would you like to subscribe to our fantastic FREE monthly newsletter?

Each month we'll keep you up-to-date with the latest nutritional articles and healthy recipes from You are free to opt out at any time, but we think you'll enjoy what we've got in-store for you.

Plus as a bonus offer — subscribe today and receive FREE weight loss tips for two weeks! Learn how a number of foods, many one would consider 'healthy', may in fact be slowing your progress.


Yes please, it sounds great! (and it's FREE after all).



No thanks, I'm not interested (or I'm already a subscriber and really enjoying these fantastic newsletters!).