May 22, 2024
Learn about the science behind stress and calorie burning, the different types of stress and their impact on calorie burn, cortisol's role in stress-induced weight loss, and tips for managing stress to maintain a healthy weight.


Stress is a common part of our everyday lives. It’s that feeling of pressure or tension that we experience when we’re faced with challenging situations like meeting tight deadlines or delivering an important speech. One of the common beliefs about stress is that it can burn calories and help us to lose weight. In this article, we will explore the science behind stress and calorie burning, the different types of stress and their impact on calorie burn, cortisol’s role in stress-induced weight loss, stress eating vs. calorie burning, the relationship between stress, exercise, and weight loss, tips for managing stress and maintaining a healthy weight, and the downside of relying on stress as a weight loss strategy.

The Science Behind Stress and Calorie Burning

We burn calories through metabolism, which is the process by which our bodies convert what we eat and drink into energy. When we engage in any physical activity, we increase our metabolism, which means that we burn more calories. But what happens when we’re stressed?

Studies have shown that stress can affect our metabolism, but the impact varies depending on the type of stress we experience, as well as other factors such as age, gender, and body weight. For example, a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that acute psychological stress increased metabolism in lean women but not in obese women.

Other studies have shown that stressful events that last for a longer period have a greater impact on our metabolism than shorter stressful events. For instance, a study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that chronic stress caused a decrease in metabolism and a slower rate of fat burning.

Factors such as genetics, physical activity, sleep, and nutrition all influence our metabolism and how we burn calories during periods of stress.

Different Types of Stress and Their Impact on Calorie Burn

Physical stress and its effects on metabolism

Physical stress involves any activity that places a strain on our bodies, such as exercise or manual labour. When we engage in physical stress, our body’s metabolic rate increases, which means we burn more calories. An article published in the American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism notes that physical stress such as cold exposure and endurance exercise increases our metabolism and energy expenditure.

Mental stress and its effects on metabolism

Mental stress involves situations that challenge us mentally, such as exams or public speaking. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that mental stress causes an increase in metabolic rate. However, the extent to which mental stress impacts metabolism varies among individuals and may depend on factors such as age, sex, and hormonal balance.

Emotional stress and its effects on metabolism

Emotional stress involves situations that evoke strong feelings such as anger, fear, or sadness. A study published in the journal PLOS One found that emotional stress causes a decrease in metabolic rate, resulting in fewer calories burned. Additionally, research has shown that emotional stress can lead to overeating, which contributes to weight gain rather than loss.

The Role of Cortisol in Stress-Induced Weight Loss

Cortisol is a hormone that is released by the adrenal glands during periods of stress. Its primary role is to prepare our body for the “fight or flight” response, which involves releasing glucose and fatty acids into our bloodstream to provide us with energy. Cortisol also plays a role in regulating our metabolism and immune system.

Studies have shown that cortisol can affect our metabolic rate, especially during periods of chronic stress. When cortisol levels are high, our body’s metabolic rate increases, which means that we burn more calories. However, cortisol also encourages the accumulation of abdominal or visceral fat, which can increase the risk of developing health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

Research has also suggested that cortisol may play a role in weight loss through stress-induced thermogenesis. Stress-induced thermogenesis occurs when our body’s metabolic rate increases due to the activation of brown adipose tissue (BAT), which regulates heat production in our bodies. Studies have shown that stress can activate BAT, which leads to an increase in energy expenditure and calorie burning.

Stress Eating vs. Calorie Burning

While stress can increase our metabolic rate and the amount of calories we burn, it can also lead to overeating and weight gain. When we’re stressed, our body produces a hormone called ghrelin, also known as the “stress hormone,” which increases our appetite and causes us to crave high calorie foods.

Additionally, stress eating tends to be associated with unhealthy food choices like junk food and sugary snacks. A study published in the journal Appetite found that participants who experienced stress were more likely to choose high-fat, high-sugar snacks than healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.

The relationship between stress and energy balance is complex, and it’s essential to maintain a balance between calorie burning and calorie consumption to achieve healthy weight management.

The Relationship Between Stress, Exercise, and Weight Loss

Exercise is a powerful tool for reducing stress and burning calories, making it an effective strategy for weight loss. Engaging in physical activity releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters that can reduce stress and improve your mood.

Studies have shown that exercise can reduce cortisol levels and improve insulin sensitivity, which contributes to weight loss by increasing our metabolic rate and reducing inflammation in our bodies. For example, research published in the Journal of Obesity showed that a 12-week exercise program improved insulin sensitivity and reduced cortisol levels in obese individuals.

Additionally, exercise can increase the production of brown adipose tissue, which was mentioned earlier when we talked about stress-induced thermogenesis. This has been shown to be a mechanism behind the weight loss benefits of exercise.

The Downside of Stress-Induced Weight Loss

While stress may seem like a quick and effective weight loss strategy, it’s not sustainable, and it can lead to health problems in the long term. Prolonged exposure to stress can increase your risk of developing conditions like anxiety, depression, and heart disease. Additionally, relying on stress-induced weight loss can lead to mental health problems like eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

It’s essential to focus on developing healthy habits to achieve sustainable weight loss and manage stress effectively.

Tips for Managing Stress and Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Here are some practical tips for reducing stress and maintaining a healthy weight:

  • Engage in regular physical activity, such as exercise, yoga, or swimming.
  • Prioritize rest and recovery, including getting enough sleep and taking time off work.
  • Eat a balanced diet that includes healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and protein.
  • Avoid stress eating by having healthy snacks on-hand like fruit, veggies, or nuts.
  • Practice mindfulness, meditation, or deep breathing exercises.
  • Set realistic goals and celebrate your progress towards achieving them.


In conclusion, stress can impact our metabolism and calorie burn, but the relationship between stress and weight management is complex. While stress may lead to short-term weight loss, it’s not sustainable, and it can lead to health problems in the long term. Therefore, it’s essential to focus on healthy habits like regular physical activity, a balanced diet, and mindfulness practices for sustainable weight loss and stress management.

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