The 3 Ways Stress is Making You Gain Weight and What to Do About It

|Updated Jun 8, 2021
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Rebel Wilson famously lost 60 pounds over the past year and a half by working on her diet and her stress level, the actress recently revealed, with a method that not only changes what you eat but also your relationship with food. Called The Mayr Method, Wilson was first introduced to it back in 2019 and launched on the "Year of Health" starting in January 2020 and taught herself to eat healthier and shed stress, since it was leading her to eat badly.

Stress, in general, is a precursor to weight gain, studies have found. People who are overweight or obese have elevated levels of cortisol, the hormone created when you are under stress, and when cortisol level goes up and stays up, as measured by hair samples, you gain belly fat. One study found that some people are more responsive to cortisol than others, and those who are "high responsive" to cortisol tend to eat more due to stress than those who are "low responsive" to cortisol, who can tolerate stress better. Knowing you are stress response is the first step to unhooking your eating habits to your stress levels. The next is to lower your stress. But the Mayr Method not only teaches people to lower their stress in general but especially while they are eating.

Scientific research backs this up: The cortisol created by a stressed body and brain signals your cells to store fat for when the imminent danger appears, whether it be a saber-toothed tiger or a traffic jam when you're running late for an important meeting. Just by teaching yourself to stress less, and eat more peacefully with a quiet brain and calm heart, slowing down your chewing and breathing deeply, you can de-rail this system, turn off the cortisol, and allow the body to do what it is supposed to do with the food you eat: Use it to nourish you, replenish your energy, and fuel your next movements.

Three Ways Stress Makes You Gain Weight. First, It tells the body to hold onto fat

Stress works three ways to sabotage our best-laid plans to lose weight and keep it off. First, when you are stressed, you reach for the worst foods and drinks to quell the stress hormones, specifically sugary snacks, simple carbs, and processed foods like bags of chips or sleeves of cookies. The brain allows us to do this because in the short term these foods boost our serotonin and give the brain a much-needed break from stress. But what if you could do that without a glass of wine (or two or three) or a bag of Salt & Vinegar potato chips?

The second way stress messes us up is, as explained above, it causes cortisol and other stress hormones to surge and signals to the body to store fuel as fat, but not just any fat, specifically belly fat, according to a Yale study that found that otherwise healthy women with belly fat had higher cortisol and more bad moods and life stress than those without belly fat. The authors concluded: "Greater exposure to life stress or psychological vulnerability to stress may explain their enhanced cortisol reactivity. In turn, their cortisol exposure may have led them to accumulate greater abdominal fat." Cortisol affects fat distribution by causing fat to be stored centrally—around the organs, they added.

You don't need a degree in anthropology to know that our dangers now come in the form of emails from the boss, looming deadlines, financial woes, or family drama. Figuring out how to deal with stress in a productive way and communicating to yourselves and others what you need to lower your stress, such as asking a spouse for more help, a child for cooperation, or a boss for a more civil tone, can go a long way toward helping you lower your personal stress alarm bells.

Stress is caused by eating junk food high in added sugar, salt, fat, and chemicals

The third way stress is a killer is more circular, logically speaking. It's that junk food causes stress! When you eat sugar, added carbs, or simple carbs in junk foods it causes stress on the body, driving up inflammation as your body believes it is under assault. This inflammation in turn raises your disease risk by making your body go into a state of red alert. You are at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and related conditions like strokes when your body is experiencing chronic inflammation, so eating a diet of plant-based foods and anti-inflammatory foods such as berries, avocados, green tea, mushrooms, curcumin, and other natural inflammation fighters is a way to lower inflammation and cellular stress. This is one reason the Mayr Method allows a glass of wine with dinner: It can help you destress.

The types of foods we know are bad for us (anything packaged or with sugar or salt added) tell them body it's under assault, so the immune system starts to create an inflammatory response which, if not turned off, can lead to hardening of the arteries and heart disease, as well as high blood sugar, insulin resistance (so it takes fewer calories to tell the system to store fat, and you get fatter on less food), along with pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke risk. All this just because instead of reaching for a healthy green salad every day at lunch you're downing three slices of pizza. In this sense, eating junk and processed food causes stress: Stress comes from within the body, at this point, and the best way to shut it down is to stop eating junk food and dial-up a diet full of healthy vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and legumes, which deliver plenty of protein but without all the saturated fat.

To derail stress, feel better and get healthy, Rebel Wilson used journaling.

Wilson's doctor recommended something called purge writing to shed stress: Essentially,  you write down your emotions and burn or flush them. Wilson found that writing down her negative thoughts every day was a key to her "letting go" of stress. She would literally destroy her negative feelings by crumpling up the paper, and you can throw it or flush it or burn it, whatever works for you (so long as you don't cause a house fire). On the flip side writing yourself a love note, telling yourself how blessed you feel and how lucky you are to be loved, to have work, to be a productive or helpful member of your community––whatever works for you is a step in the direction of lowering stress and treating yourself right, with healthy meals that are plant-based and low in unhealthy ingredients that cause inflammation, such as red meat or junk food.

The other way Wilson destressed was by walking, for several miles a day.  The gentle exercise not only allows you to burn calories but allows the brain to unwind and think about everything and anything, and process through negative emotions, and the Mayr Method recommends combining a healthy diet of high protein foods (like beans and legumes) with alkaline foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, and walking every day for long stretches of time.

The Mayr Method recommends getting out into nature, hiking, and walking in beautiful surroundings, as they do at the wellness center in Austria, where the diet was invented in the 1920s by Dr. Franz Mayr. Wilson said she never thought she would love hiking but now looks forward to the chance to get into nature. The method explains that it doesn't need to be a race up the mountain, but rather one in which you can hold a conversation with a friend. Any exercise that allows you to speak 11 words without huffing and puffing is helping your body to destress as it moves.

The third way to beat stress is to prioritize sleep, since when you get deep, restorative sleep, especially between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., it signals the body that all is well and to shut off stress, according to longevity expert, Dr. Kien Vuu. The sleep-stress connection works both ways since people with insomnia often have stress triggers, so unplugging the stressors is helpful in getting a restorative night's sleep. It's a "bilateral" connection, but studies show that sleep affects your metabolism directly, so do whatever you can to de-stress before bed and sleep better.

And the fourth way to curtail stress eating is to follow an intuitive approach to eating. What this does is unhinges your eating schedule from that of everyday conventions which hold that we need to eat breakfast lunch and dinner. While the Mayr Method encourages each meal of the day to get smaller (so your early meal is bigger than a middle meal, and your last meal is both smaller and over by  7 p.m., allowing your body to use the calories you intake), eating only when hungry is the key to stopping stress about food.

The research into intuitive eating is growing, and more health practitioners are recommending it to patients, according to Lauren Armstrong, RD, who wrote about the science behind intuitive eating as a healthy weight loss strategy. The idea is to eat when hungry, and not eat when you are not. That means unhitching yourself from conventional three meals a day and only eating healthy foods that fuel your activity.

It makes sense that if you have a snack at 4 or 5 p.m., and have no real hunger when the rest of the family and friends sit down to dinner at 6 or 7  p.m., rather than feel social pressure to eat again, listen to your intuitive hunger cues and eat a salad or a side of steamed green vegetables or spinach, which is full of fiber and nutrients, but low in calories. When you start to eat intuitively, but not due to social pressure, your body will tell you what it needs (or doesn't) and you end up eating more healthily, but not more than you need.

Start your "Rebel" health journey today. If you want a clean eating plan of plant-based recipes with proteins from plant-based sources, try the free 2 Week Clean Eating Plan.