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Stress Less Lose More (Chapter 11)

The Connection Between Stress Management and Weight Loss

When think about the major contributors to weight loss, we tend to think about things like diet, exercise, and medication. While these factors can all certainly affect your ability to lose or gain weight, there are also several other contributors at play. One such factor that we don’t typically consider is stress. Stress, and our body’s capacity for stress, is actually intimately linked to our ability to drop the pounds and maintain a healthy weight. This article will explore this concept and how it can translate to your weight loss journey.

The stress weight connection

A key to understanding the connection between stress and weight lies in our hormones. Cortisol, commonly known as our “stress hormone”, is implicated in your body’s fight or flight response. Our bodies produce cortisol when we experience physical or psychological stress. This is referred to as the mind-body connection, meaning our mental state (e.g., stress) directly impacts what is happening within our bodies. As a result, a release of cortisol signals the body to do several things, including:

There are several studies that have elucidated the relationship between stress and weight. One study in 2017 found that increased levels of cortisol were associated with increased weight and increased waist circumference. Additionally, cortisol levels were significantly increased in subjects that were obese, and they also correlated with obesity persistence (2).

Eating and stress

By now we have probably all heard the concept of emotional eating. Emotional eating refers to eating as a means to cope with stress or difficult emotions. This type of eating is not initiated by our normal, physiologic hunger cues. Thus, emotional eaters will usually intake more calories than their body needs, causing weight gain (3).

Emotional eating is certainly linked to stress. One study conducted in 2007 actually indicated that having high cortisol levels is linked to greater satisfaction when intaking sugary and fatty foods (4). Thus, if you are feeling more stress, you may reach for those so-called “bad” foods more often than normal. As a result, you may find that you gain weight as the result of emotional eating and/or elevated stress.

Stress reduction techniques

There are many ways in which we can begin to minimize our stress levels to benefit our overall health, including our weight. It is important to implement lifestyle habits that balance your hormones, including the cortisol hormone. Techniques for doing so are outlined below.

Engaging in regular exercise

Physical activity has widespread benefits beyond just getting in shape. While it can certainly help with weight loss, it can also help with managing stress, which in turn can have a positive impact on weight. Working out can actually lower your body’s levels of cortisol and adrenaline. It also increases the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural substances that boost your mood and manage pain. When such hormones are released, you may feel feelings of optimism and relaxation.

So, what type of exercise should you do to relieve stress? Well, just about any movement can be beneficial to your physical and mental health. Engaging in something as small as a 20 minute walk or stretching exercises can do wonders to eliminate stress. For maximal benefits, rhythmic repetitive activities like walking, jogging, or cycling can be advantageous (5).

Working out will lower cortisol levels, thus helping you on your weight loss journey. Not to mention, exercise is one of the best ways to lose weight, making this method a double whammy for weight loss.

Supporting your body through food

Although we talked about emotional eating and how overeating can have a negative impact on stress, there are ways in which we can nourish our minds and bodies with food. There are several foods that can actually promote stress relief, lowering cortisol throughout the body. This can be done through an anti-inflammatory diet, particularly the Mediterranean diet. Some of the best foods for cortisol levels include:

In addition to incorporating these nutritious and whole foods, you will also want to avoid food and drinks that can elevate your cortisol levels. This includes things like caffeine, alcohol, soda, high-sugar foods, and simple carbohydrates (6).

Meditation and deep breathing

Sometimes stressors happen in acute situations, and our body activates the fight or flight mode. To combat this in your day-to-day, try incorporating breath meditation. Simply stilling yourself and focusing on your breath can do wonders for your mind. A great way to do this is to start by counting your inhalations and exhalations in your head. For example, breathe in for “one, two, three, four” seconds, and then breathe out for “one, two, three, four” seconds. Doing this gives your brain something to focus on while also keeping the mind still at the same time. Repeat until your mind is still and you feel a sense of relaxation (7).

Track your progress
In order to track your stress levels, consider keeping a journal. Journaling can be yet another way to relieve stress, but it can also help you to keep up with your progress. In this journal you can write or track whatever you want, even your weight loss goals.


Stress can be a major contributor to health problems, including things like cancer, pain, and poor memory. Notably, increases cortisol levels in the body, thus making it harder to lose weight. To combat this, consider implementing diet, exercise, and other stress relief techniques to supplement your weight loss journey.


  1. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/stress-and-weight-gain
  2. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/oby.21733
  3. https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/special-topic/break-the-bonds-of-emotional-eating
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031938407001278
  5. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax
  6. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/eat-these-foods-to-reduce-stress-and-anxiety
  7. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/breath-meditation-a-great-way-to-relieve-stress
David Bauder David J. Bauder, PA-C David Bauder, PA-C, is a certified physician assistant and the assistant medical director at Weight Loss and Vitality in Manassas and Alexandria, Virginia, Washington, DC; and Gaithersburg, MD. He enjoys helping patients optimize their physical and mental health to improve their overall well-being. He earned his physician assistant degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Afterward, he gained admission into the reputable graduate program for physician assistant studies at the University of Nebraska Health Science Center in Omaha. David has over 26 years of experience working as a physician assistant. He’s practiced in podiatry, family medicine, emergency medicine, general surgery, urgent care, and functional medicine.

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