If you've ever polished off a pint of ice cream when you were under pressure or consumed a whole bag of chips when you were worried, it will come as no surprise that stress can lead to weight gain. And according to new research, stress puts people at increased risk for obesity because it not only prompts them to eat more, but also because it releases certain hormones that encourage the body to store fat.

Psychology and Biology

According to Pamela Peeke, M.D., assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, stress activates our body's fight-or-flight response. Chief among the hormones released during this response is the stress hormone cortisol.

As Peeke explains, cortisol increases appetite and intensifies cravings for sweets and simple carbohydrates--foods that make insulin levels spike and then plummet, making people feel hungrier. At the same time, cortisol stimulates deep abdominal cells to accept and store fat, which may explain why those who lead stressful, harried lives are at greater risk for gaining extra belly fat.

In addition, a 2007 Australian study suggests that stress may stimulate obesity by "unlocking" the body's fat cells. Researchers at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney discovered that when people are feeling frazzled, their bodies release the "stress molecule" neuropeptide Y (NPY), which unlocks certain receptors in fat cells, causing them to grow in both size and number.

5 Ways to Beat Stress and Shed Pounds

Fortunately, there are ways to minimize your risk of stress-related weight gain. Follow these five steps to get started.

1. Get moving.

Daily physical exercise helps the body to relieve tension, and it also releases "feel-good" chemicals called endorphins. Trying jogging, swimming, yoga, or taking a brisk walk--any of these activities will help to enhance your health and go a long way toward reducing stress levels.

2. Improve your coping skills.

Stress-reduction therapy, meditation, journaling, and various alternative therapies can greatly improve your outlook and help you cope when things get tough. Be sure to talk to your doctor about finding the best coping strategies for you.

3. Breathe deep.

When people are stressed, they tend to take shallow breaths, which can actually increase tension. By contrast, taking several slow, deep breaths can restore a sense of calm. Start by exhaling deeply while contracting your stomach, then inhale slowly as you expand your abdomen.

4. Slow down.

When things get hectic, we tend to speed up in order to feel like we're getting things done. But if you feel stressed out, experts recommend slowing down. Take a moment to calm yourself before starting new tasks, and slow down your speech patterns, too. Talking at a rapid pace can cause you to feel flustered and out of control.

5. Adjust your behavior.

Reduce the risk of stress-related eating by preparing healthy meals and snacks ahead of time and waiting 15 minutes before giving in to cravings. Also remember that hunger and dehydration can intensify feelings of anxiety. So, no matter how busy you are, be sure to eat regularly and drink plenty of fluids.