The Rumor: Stress can add inches to your waistline

Do you eat more when you're stressed -- and do you gain weight when you eat more? Yeah, us too. (The verdict on this one isn't too hard to guess.) 

The Verdict: Like a sheet of piping-hot cookies fresh from the oven, stress can make us gain weight

Many of us have gobbled down a chocolate bar or two (or three or four) when we've been stressed. OK, maybe for you it wasn't chocolate. Maybe it was french fries. Or corn chips. Or homemade apple pie. Whatever it was, aside from the momentary pleasure you received from putting it in your mouth, it probably didn't reduce your stress. Right? Because the truth is, stress eating may just make everything worse -- and, yes, cause you to put on some extra pounds as well.

But it might be even worse than you think. Chronic stress not only affects appetite, it also directly changes your biology so you put on more body fat -- especially in the middle, where it harms your health the most. That’s not to say stress is the only cause of weight gain (we're pretty sure large portion sizes, too many fried foods and lots of sweets play a role as well). But if you've been trying to lose weight without success, managing your stress level may be the key to achieving your weight loss goals.

“When you’re stressed, you eat less healthfully," says Adam Perlman, MD, MPH, executive director of Duke University’s Integrative Medicine Center. "You reach for comfort foods. You’re less motivated to exercise. You sleep less well -- and that all leads to a state where you gain weight. It’s a feedback loop: You eat inappropriately, you gain weight and you feel more stress.”

Chronic stress affects our food cravings, too: It raises blood levels of the hormone cortisol, which increases our appetites for sugary and fatty foods. “Not a lot of people get stressed out and eat a kale salad,” says Drew Ramsey, MD, author of The Happiness Diet and 50 Shades of Kale. "You eat something sweet and you get a burst of insulin, which is satisfying in the short term. You’re rewarding yourself for feeling down.”

According to Ramsey, these foods may boost serotonin, improving mood -- but only momentarily. “You’re medicating stress with food," he warns. "The sugary foods and refined carbs are habit-forming.”

But stress doesn’t stop there in its malevolent crusade to fatten you up: It also changes the way your body metabolizes food. “Chronic stress means more cortisol, and that can lead to increased abdominal fat,” says Perlman. “It’s a dangerous kind of obesity to have." (For you science geeks out there, neuropeptide Y, a compound your body releases under stress, increases both the size and number of fat cells (especially around the belly), and is linked with glucose intolerance. Think: Diabetes and fatty liver risk.

Don’t want love handles? Get a handle on stress. “Managing stress can contribute to weight loss,” says Perlman. In one study from the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, overweight women who entered a four-month mindfulness program for stress eating had less circulating cortisol and abdominal fat. Women on a “wait list” (i.e., the control group) had more cortisol, and they gained weight.

De-stressing is easier said than done, of course. First step? “Ask yourself, ‘What can I change in my life that will reduce my stress?’” suggests Ramsey. “The number-one stress buster is exercise. Anything you do to increase your physical activity will reduce stress. Also, a plant-based diet, with whole foods -- including seafood and green vegetables rich in folate -- may modify the stress response."

“It’s a journey,” says Perlman. “That’s how I talk to my patients: Find the tools that work for you. Sometimes small things can relieve stress -- like decluttering. Just take a few minutes to clean out your desk. Not everyone has to see a psychologist, or do yoga, or meditate, or take anti-anxiety medications, or take a mindfulness class. But everyone needs to have a routine, a way to manage stress and build resiliency. It’s about a different way of living your life. It’s about connecting your work/life balance, your supportive friends, your exercise, eating properly, sleeping effectively. It’s all interrelated."