Beating the Stress Weight Gain Connection

By Martin Brown

There are many reasons for the modern day prevalence of expanding waistlines: lack of physical exertion, poor diets, and the abundance of fat laden readily available packaged foods, are just a few of the reasons.

Unfortunately, a principle culprit in our runaway weight epidemic of recent decades, that gets relatively little attention, is the intersection of stress and diet.

Stress for our ancestors came mostly in the form of defined danger. That could be a number of issues, the aggressive behavior of a dangerous animal, a flash flood from a nearby river, an attack by a neighboring tribe, or violent weather. All of these dangers triggered in us what is called a flight or fight reaction. We all know what our bodies do when this particular stress reaction occurs. Respiration and heart rates accelerate, senses become more acute, focus narrows down to the stimuli causing this reaction and our appetite shuts down until the emergency has passed.

Unfortunately in our modern world, fight or flight confrontations have evolved into long-term stress inducing situations that have no clear resolutions. Job insecurity, financial worries, arguments with supervisors or colleagues, even bad traffic and long lines at airports can trigger various levels of fight or flight hormonal reactions. Of course these threats are not immediate, creating what medical researcher, author and physician, Pamela Peeke, wonderfully describes as “stew and chew” as opposed to fight or flight.

Remember that in actual fight or flight confrontations appetite turns off. In the middle of an argument with your boss, for example, you’re not going to be thinking about lunch. But when these stress factors become long term they disrupt the normal hormonal response and actually trigger greater hunger. Worst of all these hormones drive people to seek high fat food intake; the caloric results of which are mostly stored for women in the abdomen, hips and thighs.

We’re all familiar with the sitcom scenario where the upset woman, who just found out that her boyfriend has been cheating on her, drowns her sorrows in a half gallon container of ice cream. A comical exaggeration of a real instinctive reaction: seeking stress relief in high fat foods.

As Peeke says, with no available alternatives to stress we stew and chew.  This hormonal reaction has also been noted in a variety of laboratory animals that are put in stressful situations over extended periods of time.

In her practice the majority of patients that Peeke sees are what she calls, “stress overeaters.” But there are a minority of women she describes at “stress resilient.” These women get the signal to indulge in overeating but simply resist. And in that simple revelation there is a powerful message of how the stress weight connection can be broken. The mere recognition of the stew chew dynamic at least alerts us to the changes it can cause in our bodies. This cycle is most easily broken by physical exercise that drains away stress and causes the body to release endorphins that counteract the effects of long-term stress factors. Yoga, meditation, relaxation exercises, are all effective in breaking this cycle of stress and overeating. First and foremost of course is recognition that stress is causing this reaction.

None of us like to acknowledge the powerful and negative effects that stress can place upon us. This is probably because we feel powerless to change or alter this discouraging reality. But we can and must find ways to do break the stress/overeating cycle. As Peeke has found, just recognizing the problem brings you more than half way to a cure for those extra pounds that seem like they will never go away.


Martin Brown is the Heath Channel Editor for, and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Finding Mr. Right.

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