Can stress make you fat?


Thirty-five-year-old Vicky came to see me in a bid to lose weight. Although she weighed 78 kg, she ate surprisingly little – just tea and coffee throughout the day, and the usual meat, ugali, sukuma in the evening. She didn’t have kids and her thyroid function appeared normal (both potential factors in weight gain).

Let me turn your attention to a study published in the journal Obesity, which found that certain obese women were likely to experience rapid weight gain after a stressful event (without eating more) – and it was all to do with the stress hormone cortisol.

Cortisol was doing its job, because we haven’t evolved much since cave times – a time when the only kind of stress our brains were trained to recognise is something like a lion creeping up on us.

Cortisol prepares the body to either defend itself or flee. In that situation, there’s simply no time to eat, so cortisol causes your body to hang onto the calories you’ve consumed.

While this is fine in the short run, long-term stress (and thus cortisol release) isn’t going to do you much good. As well as the additional weight you’ll be carrying around, it’ll adversely affect your immune system, your bones, your muscles, sleep and cognitive function.

When your body’s running in survival mode, there’s no time for rest and repair.

By: not eating during the day, and flooding her body with stimulants, Vicky was pushing her body into stress mode. The caffeine found in tea and coffee increased levels of cortisol and adrenalin (another stress hormone) so that her body was constantly on high alert.

When Vicky started to destress a little, and support her body with the regular light meals (colourful fresh vegetables, wholegrains, meat, fish), suitable snacks (fruit, nuts, seeds) and plenty of fluids (more water, less tea), her body started behaving as it should. Just two months later, Vicky weighed 73 kg – a trend that appears to be continuing.