Can stress cause rapid weight loss?

There is little research on how stress and diet contribute to rapid weight loss or weight stabilization. Some studies suggest that people who experience low levels of stress can experience rapid weight loss and even weight stabilization.1–3 However, some research suggests that stressful life events may contribute to weight gain due to the stress, especially negative emotions.4–9

One of the ways that stress causes weight gain is when one’s eating behavior results in less food intake than is needed—either due to the eating habits or due to psychological changes.10–12

Another way stress causes weight gain is when one eats more than one typically needs to maintain a particular degree of weight: one feels hungrier than normal.

The following charts summarize the relationship between stressful life events and weight gain:

It is important to remember that while many stressful life events can lead to weight gain, certain events are more likely to lead to more rapid weight gain.3,10–13 This is true for most life events.

What effects do stressful life events have on weight loss behavior?

How stressful a person’s life events are has been known to impact the behaviors they engage in after they experience them. Researchers have found that stress and its effects, like overeating, do not disappear even after people have experienced the stressful events that led to the overeating.5

How can you manage stress?

People who experience stress often try to manage or reduce their stressful experiences by:

• Identifying stress-inducing situations, as well as how to handle them.

• Setting goals to improve their stress levels and control their behaviors.

• Increasing daily activities in areas of their life that they find most draining (e.g., chores, exercise, family activities).

• Taking advantage of opportunities to relax and have fun, such as going on vacation.

In some cases, people may be able to lower their stress. For example, research has shown that after a stressful work event or situation was stressful, the stress-induced fatigue had decreased.4

Other people may require an entirely different approach. Stress management or eating behavior strategies may be more suited to individuals in these situations.

The ability to manage stress may depend more on one’s emotional state than their level of fitness.4,14–17

Studies suggest that people who experience high levels of emotional responses are more likely to experience fast weight gain and more rapid weight loss in response to stress.1,2,15