The study included 58 women, average age 53, who were asked about their stress levels the previous day and then given a meal than included 930 calories and 60 grams of fat. The Ohio State University researchers measured how long it took the women to burn off those calories and fat.
On average, women who had one or more stressful events during the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories in the seven hours after eating the meal than those who were stress-free.
On a daily basis, that difference could add up to a weight gain of nearly 11 pounds a year, the researchers said.
The stressed women also had higher levels of the hormone insulin, which contributes to the storage of fat, according to the study, published in the latest issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry.
The findings show that "over time, stressors could lead to weight gain," study lead author Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychiatry and psychology, said in a university news release.
"We know from other data that we're more likely to eat the wrong foods when we're stressed, and our data say that when we eat the wrong foods, weight gain becomes more likely because we are burning fewer calories," she said.
Previous studies have found that people who are under stress or have other mood problems are at increased risk for becoming overweight or obese. The new findings suggest one reason for that possible connection, Kiecolt-Glaser and her colleagues said.
"We know we can't always avoid stressors in our life, but one thing we can do to prepare for that is to have healthy food choices in our refrigerators and cabinets so that when those stressors come up, we can reach for something healthy rather than going to a very convenient but high-fat choice," study co-author Martha Belury, a professor of human nutrition, said in the news release.
The study suggested a connection between stress and weight gain, but it did not prove such a link exists.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains how to prevent weight gain.
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