How Stress Impacts Fat Loss And How To Minimise It

How Stress Impacts Fat Loss

How Stress Impacts Fat Loss And How To Minimise It

Stress impacts fat loss. But it doesn’t make you fat.

I’d love to stop there but I assume if you’re reading this then you’d like to know more about how stress impacts fat loss.

So here we go.

My intention for this article is to make it as easy as possible to understand. But the stress response is complicated. How stress impacts fat loss is more complicated. There are differences between males and females, and large differences in terms of how each individual perceives and recovers from a stressful situation.

To simplify things, I’ve left out a lot and made the focus on how stress impacts fat loss. I’m not looking at the health implications as it would require a book to be written.

I’ve broken this article down into three sections:

1: The Science of How Stress Impacts Fat Loss

2: The Cycles of How Stress Impacts Fat Loss

3: How to Reduce Stress for Successful Fat Loss


Ps. I’m not a doctor. If you’re experiencing stress or worried about your health (mental or physical) you should see a professional.




Stress 101 

Your body is always trying to maintain a level of optimal functioning, or homeostasis. Stress is simply your body’s response to a stimulus (a stressor) that pushes your body out of homeostasis.

For example, exercise and dieting are a stressor to your body.

Acute stress is a protective mechanism and is beneficial. If your body has enough time to recover, it adapts and gets stronger so that it can respond better to that stressor if it encounters it again in the future.

What’s not good for your body is constantly activating the stress response for no reason.

Humans are interesting because our stress response (unlike other mammals) can be activated not only by physical events, but also by thinking about them.

The stress response at a physiological level is similar no matter what the stimulus is.

Worrying about work, and performing physical exercise may seem like very different types of stress on the outside. Inside your body, they both produce a similar general response (in addition to anything specific).

The hallmark of the stress response is mobilisation of energy from fat cells, your liver and your muscles. Your heart and breathing rate increase to transport nutrients and oxygen as quickly as possible. The immune, digestive and reproductive systems cost a lot of energy to run. Your body turns these off so it has as much energy as possible to send to your muscles and brain to deal with the stressor.

This is why you’re more likely to get sick if you’re someone who’s always stressed.

Your immune system is constantly down regulated. It’s also why you might get bloated and have digestive issues if you eat when flying at high altitudes. Flying is a stress to your body!

Since the stress response is the same no matter what the source of stress is, each stressor can add to the overall load of stress on your body.

If you’re under too much stress, your body won’t be able to recover properly and it will adapt in a negative way (you’ll get injured, sick or burn out).

It’s the balance of the right amount of stress with enough recovery that produces a positive adaptation by your body (it gets stronger).


Cortisol and the stress response

You’ve probably heard of cortisol and adrenaline.

They’re the main hormones involved in the stress response.

Hormones are not straightforward. It isn’t simply a case of this hormone is released and makes something happen. There’s feedback inhibition, competition between receptors and many pathways that interact or can be modulated.

To keep it very basic, I’m going to skip adrenaline and explain cortisol because it plays more of a role in the control of bodyweight. However, this is still very simplified!

When your body encounters a stressor, it triggers a hormonal response that begins in the brain and leads to the release of cortisol from the adrenal gland.

Cortisol is also released daily in a diurnal fashion to help you wake up and become alert. Secretion is highest in the morning, slowly declines throughout the day and reaches its lowest level at nighttime so you can sleep.

Cortisol has many other effects on your body:

  • Helps to produce energy by releasing fatty acids from fat cells, and increasing glucose production in the liver
  • Helps to maintain blood glucose levels
  • Stimulates protein breakdown (which can allow for muscle to rebuild itself and adapt)
  • Helps to form fear based memories (to help you avoid danger in the future)
  • Is anti-inflammatory and modulates inflammation
  • Suppresses non-vital organ systems in your body so it has energy for those systems which are most active (your brain and neuromuscular system)

Acute increases in cortisol levels are beneficial and even essential for proper functioning of your body. It’s only when cortisol is elevated for long periods of time that it becomes an issue.

Some of the effects of chronically elevated cortisol include:

  • Insulin resistance and leptin resistance in the brain
  • Stimulation of visceral fat storage
  • Increased protein breakdown (leading to muscle loss since there’s no recovery period for muscle to repair itself)
  • Inhibition of bone production (leading to loss of bone mineral density)
  • Impaired memory
  • Inhibition of the immune system and reproductive function

When it comes to stress from dieting, the basic physiological response in the body is similar for everyone.

The main differences come back to the psychological and social stressors related to your diet. Examples include:

  • Fear of going over calories
  • Worrying about the number on the scale
  • Having unrealistic expectations and feeling like you’re not meeting them
  • Trying to adhere too perfectly 
  • Putting time limits on progress and feeling pressure to look a certain way by a certain time
  • Lack of support by family and friends
  • Overthinking what is “good” or “bad” or “right” or “wrong” when it comes to food selection
  • Feeling pressure to eat certain things when out in order to be social
  • Worrying about eating out

From your body’s perspective, it makes sense that restricting your calories would cause a stress response. Increased cortisol helps to mobilise fat and glucose for the body to use as fuel so it can survive.

What your body wasn’t designed to do is worry about food and deal with that type of stress on a constant basis.

Before you jump to conclusions and say dieting is bad for you, let me be clear. Calorie restriction is essential for fat loss. It’s not bad for you.

It’s the combination of stress from diet and exercise, with your individual perception and response to certain situations that contributes to the overall load of stress on your body.

Some people may get away with more than others, but ultimately too much stress, experienced for too long, will take its toll on anyone.



In order to lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit. There’s no other way.

Rather than asking “How does stress impact fat loss?”, a better question to ask is:

“How does stress impact my ability to maintain a calorie deficit?”

Short term, stress tends to blunt appetite (thanks to adrenaline) and may help with weight loss.

It’s chronic stress that becomes more of an issue due to its effect on your appetite, cravings for certain foods, and water retention.

The combination of the physiological effects and your behavioural response, leads to a number of interrelated cycles that can make fat loss much more difficult.


The Stress Eating Cycle

Perhaps you’ve experienced a time where you’ve been super stressed and felt like eating ice cream or cookies all day.

You’re not weak. There’s a physiological reason that you feel like eating these foods when you’re stressed or emotional.

Cortisol stimulates your appetite and gives you an urge to eat. It also seems to increase cravings for “comfort” foods (those foods high in fat and sugar).

Sugar intake can reduce cortisol which helps to lower stress temporarily.

In other words, sugar helps you feel better.

The more restrictive your diet is, the more likely you’re going to feel the need to give in to this urge to make you feel better when you’re overwhelmed with stress or negative emotions.

This can create a cycle of stress eating and potentially weight gain.


The Binge- Restrict Cycle

Sustaining an incredibly restrictive diet can create stress itself. You might have experienced this in the past- feeling pressure to stick to your diet and feeling like you have to do it perfectly to get results.

A super restrictive diet is going to be almost impossible to stick to long term meaning you’re more likely to go over your calorie limit or eat a food you’ve determined to be off limits.

When you do, or when you’re feeling stress from other parts of your life, rather than simply getting back on track, you decide to binge on large amounts of those foods (high calorie comfort foods).

This leads to feelings of guilt about messing up your diet and adds to the stress load on your body. You’ll gain some weight and then the cycle starts again because you go back to more extreme methods to lose that weight.

Chasing a perfect diet and exercise routine, especially if it’s extreme, sets you up for overeating and a lack of fat loss progress.


The Water Retention Cycle

Chronic stress reduces active thyroid levels which lowers your metabolic rate and can increase water retention. Cortisol can also cause water retention on its own by binding to a receptor involved in water balance.

Water retention can make you feel puffy and bloated. The scale might stay the same when it should be moving down. It can last for days to weeks and make fat loss seem like it’s not happening even if it is.

If you have a certain time expectation for your rate of fat loss progress, seeing no change for your efforts can cause more stress, creating more water retention.

This usually has two outcomes:

  1. You think you have to do more, so you add exercise or eat even less, which makes things worse. Sustaining this for long is impossible and eventually you give up. After a few days, you feel better and the water retention goes away. This is where rather than realising that it was the break from your extreme diet and exercise that helped, you start back up with it since it seems like it did work. The cycle then repeats.
  2. You may give in to the urge to binge on high calorie foods since you think your diet isn’t working. You break your restrictive diet and go into the binge-restrict cycle.

If you’re female you’re also likely to experience water retention during certain stages of your menstrual cycle. This can add to the water retention experienced from your restrictive diet or extreme exercise routine. You can learn more about water retention from your menstrual cycle here. 

It’s important to learn to distinguish what water retention feels like and remind yourself that water retention is not fat gain. You also need to set your plan up in a way that minimises stress so you don’t experience so much water retention. 



The aim shouldn’t be to completely remove stress from your life.

Trying to work out how to do that will probably make you more stressed!

When it comes to fat loss, what you need to do is make sure you’re in as good a place as possible to commit to a fat loss plan.

This may involve dealing with other stressful situations going on in your life first, before you start a diet.

I’m not going to tell you what you need to do to reduce life stress here. That’s a future article in the making.

What I’m going to do is give you some considerations you should make in order to minimise the stress related to dieting and exercise.

Generally, it’s not dieting and exercise that’s the problem. It’s your approach to dieting and exercise.

You can handle the stress from diet and exercise, and successfully lose fat, if you take the right approach.


Stay Away From Extremes

Any diet or exercise routine that’s extremely different from what you’re currently doing is going to cause more stress on your body than one that’s a moderate change.

Not to mention, extreme diets or workout routines are super difficult to stick to long term.

You’ll likely end up in one of the cycles mentioned earlier, or you’ll give up because it’s too hard.

If you want to be successful with fat loss, you shouldn’t jump straight into a huge calorie deficit and start training 7 days a week.

You’d be better off starting with a plan you can stick to and that causes enough stress to elicit change, but not so much that it overwhelms you.

This means starting with a workout routine that has you in the gym 3-4 days a week and with a moderate calorie deficit. You can learn how to set this up here.


Improve Your Relationship With Food

Believing certain foods are good for you and others are bad, won’t help you minimise stress to lose fat.

Instead, you need to learn to see food for what it is.

Tracking your macros can help with this. Through tracking, you’ll learn what’s in certain foods as well as how to include them in your diet in the right portions to lose fat.

The best diet for fat loss is not one that cuts out certain foods. 

The diet that will work for fat loss is one that puts you into a moderate calorie deficit in a way that you can stick to consistently. The other important things that you need to include in your diet are mentioned in this.

Overall, you don’t need to worry about completely cutting out bad foods. Including foods that you enjoy in your diet every day, can keep you out of the binge-restrict eating cycle, and help you lose fat.


Have Realistic Expectations For Progress

Fat loss takes time. Muscle growth takes even longer.

Whilst weight loss can happen quickly, in order to change how you look, you want to focus on fat loss and muscle growth. No matter what you do, it’s going to take time.

Instead of chasing instant results, understand that changing your body is a process that takes months, not weeks.

You won’t see physical progress overnight or after a week. But you’ll make other forms of progress on a weekly basis. Being consistent is progress, gaining strength is progress, not freaking out if the scale spikes up is progress.

There are so many forms of progress that will add up to the physical change you want to see.

You need to stop putting pressure on yourself to achieve a certain result by a certain time.

An egg doesn’t boil faster if you watch it.

You’re going to get to your goal faster if you stop focusing on how long it’s taking and instead focus on all the small forms of progress you’re making.


Learn To Understand The Scale

Stressing about the number on the scale won’t help you lose fat.

The scale is a reflection of your body weight. 

Your weight may change as a result of many things other than fat gain or loss.

If you lose a lot of weight overnight, that’s a good sign you’ve lost water, not fat.

To get a better looking body you want to lose fat, not weight. They’re not the same thing.

If the scale stays the same, you could be making fat loss progress even though you’re not making weight loss progress.

The scale isn’t as important as you make it out to be.

The number you think you need to hit to have the body you want, is going to be different to what you think it should be.

There really is no point stressing about reaching a certain number on the scale!


Know How To Take Breaks Without Losing Progress

If you’re feeling stressed, you’d be better off eating the donut (or whatever else you feel like) and fit it into your diet, rather than trying to avoid it and binging later on.

You can simply eat at your maintenance calories for the day. This will give you more room in your diet to fit in higher calorie foods, without losing fat loss progress. 

If you start experiencing a lot of stress in your life whilst on a diet, you can always implement a diet break, rather than just giving up on your fat loss attempts altogether.

A diet break is where you go back to eating at maintenance calories, until you’re ready to start eating in a calorie deficit again.

You’ll reduce the stress on your body from your diet, and also have more flexibility with your food selection. As a result you’ll be better able to handle the stress going on in your life. You won’t continue to lose fat on a diet break but you won’t gain it back either. 


Use Small Adjustments If You Hit A Plateau

When progress stalls, which it will, you don’t need to freak out or make drastic changes to what you’re doing.

Instead, make sure you’ve really hit a plateau and it’s not water retention.

If you have hit a plateau, all you need to do is make a small adjustment to your calorie intake or exercise routine.

Gradual change is going to help minimise stress to help you lose fat.

You can learn more about plateaus here.


Take Your Rest Days

Rest is essential for your body to recover from the stress of working out. Take your rest days guilt free!

You will get results if you take days off from the gym. You don’t need to do hours and hours of cardio every day. In most cases, you don’t have to do cardio at all if you hate it.

If you feel the need to do some form of exercise daily, walking is your best option.

This isn’t a stress on your body and may even help reduce stress.

Lastly, make sure you follow a workout plan that is suitable to your level of fitness and experience.

Easing into a plan and making gradual increases in the intensity or volume is going to be less stressful as it allows your body to get used to it as you progress.



How stress impacts fat loss is complicated. I haven’t even touched on sleep deprivation, which is also a stressor to your body. Make sure you get enough sleep!

There is so much more I could write about stress. Part 2 of this article is in the works.

In the meantime, if you have any questions feel free to contact me here. 


Further reading:

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky

The Women’s Book by Lyle McDonald

Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight.

Stress and eating behaviours