Wait, diet and exercise are supposed to make you skinny, right? Calories in calories out? At least that's the impression I had been laboring (literally laboring) under for the past 15 years. Well, turns out this theory is wrong, like, krimped hair wrong. And this over simplification of fat gain and loss has led to many a hungry, frustrated gal (and guy), hanging over the Stairmaster, churning away in vain, wondering what the heck gives. 


The truth is people gain weight for many, many reasons including genetics, hormonal function, gut bacteria, but today we're going to talk about STRESS.

Now, when you hear the word stress you might start imagining some poor unfortunate soul screaming out "SELL GODDAMNIT, SELLL!" from a trading room floor in the seventh circle of hell. And this would be a stressful situation indeed. However, stress comes in a lot of different forms - not just work-related. Dr. James L. Wilson classified stress into four categories: 

  1. PHYSICAL STRESS – from things like overworking, lack of sleep and over-exercise

  2. CHEMICAL STRESS – from environmental pollutants and a diet high in refined carbohydrates and processed foods

  3. THERMAL STRESS — over-heating or over-chilling the body (hot yoga anyone?)


Any kind of stress causes our body to produce the hormone cortisol. Cortisol stimulates the liver to raise our blood sugar by taking proteins from our skeletal tissue and fat from our adipose tissue and converting them into glucose, or sugar. 

Why? Because our stress response evolved over millions of years, and being chased by a wild animal  (very stressful) requires a lot of energy. So our body learned to provide this energy by making more blood sugar.

Now you might say, hey, wait a minute - you said cortisol breaks down fat, so how could it make me fat?

Well if your only stress is running from a wild animal and/or working out at the gym every now and then, then yes, this energy expenditure will cause your body to produce cortisol to make glucose out of your stored fat. Hooray. Burn baby burn. 


If, perhaps, you have more stressors than the occasional foot race with a wildebeest, you could be putting yourself in a chronically stressed state without even knowing it. This is when the pounds start piling on and this is why:  

Let's say you're someone who exercises on a daily basis, something pretty strenuous - running, spinning, hot yoga - for about an hour. Then let's say you also just started work at a new job where your boss has mistaken you for their personal slave or, alternatively, you're in college trying to figure out how to fit in class and partying while still making the Dean's List. In both of these situations sleep is probably not high on the priority list. Then let's add to the mix calorie counting. You're faithfully using MyFitnessPal like any good dieter would and making sure you keep that total at 1,200 per day (that's the magic number according to US Weekly, right?)

In sum that's:  

  • Chronic exercise = cortisol
  • Workplace / lifestyle demands = more cortisol
  • Lack of sleep = more cortisol (your body needs more fuel the longer you stay awake) 
  • Lack of fuel (calories) = more cortisol (your body thinks it's starving = stress = cortisol) 

All of this stacks up to one crapload of cortisol constantly pumping through your body. This means your blood sugar is constantly elevated. When your blood sugar is elevated your body produces another hormone - insulin to get that sugar out of your blood and into the cells. The more and more insulin you have in your body the less responsive your cells are to it - thus the phenomenon that is called "insulin resistance" - in layman's terms: you have a ton of sugar in your blood, your cells become either saturated and/or resistant to taking in anymore - what happens with all this extra sugar? 

This is why it sometimes seems like you're banging your head against the wall, busting your hump to work out like Richard Simmons doesn't even KNOW and...nothing. Nada. No change.


In addition to elevated blood sugar, over-exercising and under eating have another unpleasant side effect: lowering your metabolism. This is because your body is smart. It wants to survive so if it senses that you're putting out more energy than you're taking in, it's going to lower your rate of energy expenditure, or your metabolism. It also is going to hold on to whatever food you do feed it for dear life. This means anything you eat it will store as fat, because it knows it's going to need it. This is why you should never, ever restrict calories. Of course you might loose weight in the short term, but in the long run all your going to wind up with is a slow metabolism and a bad mood. 


Here's the solution: stop. If you want to loose weight you've got to get your body as close to that wildebeest-fearing primal lifestyle as possible - meaning you want SPORADIC bursts of stress. How do you do that?  

Fuel your body. As soon as your body starts to feel like it's running out of fuel it's going to get stressed and try and raise your blood sugar, so eat. Eat until you are full. Then eat again when you are hungry, not starving. Repeat as needed. 

Exercise then REST. Remember sporadic bursts of stress will cause your body to produce cortisol and in the process break down fat. It's only when the stress is constant that you can start to pile on the pounds. So Work out, hard. Then give it a rest. Always keep your body guessing.

Manage your emotional stress. Of course it's not possible for everyone to say 'good day' to the ole' slave driver and ship off for a life of leisure in Cozumel, but you can try and let a few more things roll. My strategy is simple, yet effective, it's called "In the grand scheme of your life.." say this to yourself whenever you feel a freakout upon you. Say an unexpected bill / speeding ticket comes in, or you accidentally hit 'reply all' when you meant to hit reply, just say to yourself "In the grand scheme of your life - does this really matter?" Nine times out of ten, the answer is no. It's pretty much always no. 

SLEEP. Sleep is a superfood. Sleep is the best way you can give your body a rest and keep your cortisol down. So make sure you're getting the shut eye. At least 8 hours per night. 

Do you know any one who is working out, dieting, and not getting results? Share this with them! 

What about you? Ever experience a plateau or even weight gain when you think you're doing everything right? I'd love to hear about your experience in the comments below!