For most of us, stress is a fact of life. Unfortunately, recent research reveals that it's also a fact of fat. Even if you usually eat healthfully and exercise, chronic high stress can prevent you from losing weight - and it can even add kilos, says women’s health expert Dr Pamela Peeke.

This is what happens: Your body responds to all stress - physical or psychological - in exactly the same way. So every time you have a stressful day, your brain acts as though you're in physical danger and instructs your cells to release potent hormones. You get a burst of adrenaline, which taps stored energy, so you can fight or flee. At the same time, you get a surge of cortisol, which tells your body to replenish that energy, even though you haven't used very many kilojoules in your stressed-out state. This can make you hungry . . . very hungry. And your body keeps pumping out cortisol as long as the stress continues.

Sadly, few of us reach for carrot sticks in these situations. "Instead, we crave sweet, salty, and high-fat foods because they stimulate the brain to release pleasure chemicals that actually do reduce tension," explains Dr Elissa Epel, a researcher on stress eating.

In addition, with your adrenal glands pumping out cortisol, production of the muscle-building hormone testosterone slows down. Over time, this drop causes a decrease in your muscle mass, so you are burning fewer kilojoules too.

Cortisol also encourages your body to store fat - especially visceral fat, which is dangerous because it surrounds vital organs and releases fatty acids into your blood, raising cholesterol and insulin levels and paving the way for heart disease and diabetes.

Obviously, getting rid of all anxiety isn't an option but recognising these six causes, you can get your cortisol level and your weight under control and improve your overall health at the same time.