Stress could be the reason you can’t shift those extra kilos

A recent study has found telling someone they are overweight could see the individual piling on more kilos.  The stress of realising you are overweight has been seen to result in overeating as a response.  This is not just occurring in adults.  Research shows that making overweight children feel bad about their physicality actually increases the risk of obesity, rather than leading to the individual losing kilos.  Could psychological distress play such an important role in weight gain? Perhaps eating too much or eating the wrong kinds of food and not getting enough exercise is not only the reason we are seeing an increase in obesity.  We’ll fill you in on how stress could be inhibiting you from losing weight and in fact see you pile on the extra kilos!

Published in the International Journal of Obesity, a recent study observed 14,000 people in the UK and the US to ascertain the effects stress has on people’s weight gain.  The participants were aged from young children to 45 years old.  It was found those who were overweight were more likely to overeat in response to the stress, which lead to even further weight gain.

Dr Eric Robinson, of the University of Liverpool stated that the realisation of being overweight can be quiet stressful “making healthy choices in your lifestyle more difficult”.  The researchers suggest those who are unware of their physicality may be better off kept in the dark as believing you are overweight is counterproductive.  This realisation could be the trigger that stops the individual from adopting a healthier lifestyle and is now considered a huge problem for medical professional trying to combat the obesity epidemic.

A Florida University study published in the Journal PLOS One found that overweight individuals who experienced some form of weight discrimination were more likely to gain weight in response.  This discrimination could include telling someone to lose weight, fat shaming, biases linked with weight and generally any bulling that makes the person feel bad about their bodies.

Over the four-year survey, more than 6,000 men and women in the US measured their body mass index at the beginning and end of the study. Those participants who were overweight were incredibly 2.5 times more likely to gain weight when they experienced psychological distress.  Not only that, those overweight people were more likely to become obese at the end of the study.

Participates who were already obese, experiencing psychological distress as a result of weight discrimination was just as harmful.  Researchers stated these individuals “were over three times more likely to remain obese at follow-up, rather than drop below the obesity threshold, than those who did not experience such discrimination”.   It was suggested weight discrimination is associated with increased negative emotions and decreased cognitive control resulting in excessive food intake and a lack of physical activity.

Interestingly, it is not just adults that we are seeing stress caused by people highlighting their weight status play out negatively.  A study published in Weight Labelling and Obesity journal by the University of California found that calling young girls ‘fat’ is actually likely to cause them to gain more weight!

Researchers suggested that labelling girls around the age of 10 as “too fat” makes them more likely to be obese by aged 19.  Over 1,213 girls from the US participated in the study and about 58 percent of these young women were bullied, teased or recognised as too fat throughout their childhood.

So, why can stress lead to weight gain?

Professor Jan Kiecolt-Glaser of Ohio State University says that we are more likely to eat the wrong type of foods when we are stressed.  From his research, eating the wrong foods, causes weight gain because you are burning fewer calories.  This occurs in particular with women.

In fact, women who experience one or more stressful events burn significantly fewer calories (up to 104 calories) than those who don’t have any psychological stressors.  And the weight gain is not insignificant either! The difference could be almost 5kg over the course of a year which could add up in the long run.

Kiecolt-Glaser points out stressed women show higher levels of insulin which ends up in fat storage.  Their fat was also less likely to be converted into a form which can be used as fuel; a process otherwise known as oxidation.

in my opinion high insulin levels are the main cause of the high rates of obesity seen in today’s society

Dr Joseph Ajaka

It’s relevant to also point out, that these stressors might not be as major as you might have first thought.  Stressful events could include arguing with a work colleague or spouse, disagreement with a friend, trouble with your children or pressures relating to a job or financials.  Out of the 58 middle-aged women in the Ohio State University, only six claimed to be completely stress-free.

This further highlights the complexity of losing weight and avoiding weight gain, not necessarily because you are eating burgers and chocolates and lazing about on the couch, but because you are under psychological stress.

Stress and hormones

Hormones play a big role in why stress leads to weight gain.  When you experience stress, whether it is the arrival of a big credit card bill or an argument with your partner, your brain detects this as a threat.  This triggers the release of chemicals including adrenaline, CRH and cortisol preparing your body to handle the threat and withstand any injury.

When adrenaline is released you feel less hungry while your blood flows away from the internal organs and towards the larger muscles in preparation for the ‘fight or flight’ mode.  When the adrenaline effect dissipates, the stress hormone, cortisol, sticks around telling your body to replenish your food supply.  Hence, the reason our first response to stress is often getting stuck into devouring food.  This would be okay if we experienced threats similar to our ancestors where we expelled a lot of energy fighting off wild animals.  Today, though we might be hunched over at our computer trying to meet a deadline or curled up on the couch worrying about our relationships.  Not exactly burning energy!

Stress and anxiety

Anxiety has been shown to trigger emotional eating in response to stress.  Adrenaline also plays a part in creating this anxiety which is why we often feel wired up.  While some of us might burn calories getting worked up or spending the afternoon scrubbing the house clean in response to a stressor, the majority tend to turn to food.  In fact, the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey, revealed that an incredible 40 percent of people deal with stress by emotional eating.  42 percent sat in front of the television for more the two hours a day, further increasing the temptation to overeat and not expelling energy.

Stress and belly fat

Those who regularly experience stress in their life, regardless of the type, are more prone to establishing an extra layer of visceral fat deep in the belly.  This excess belly fat is difficult to get rid of and can lead to serious health complications due to the chemical release triggering inflammation.  Visceral fat surrounding your internal organs can increase your chance of developing heart disease and diabetes, not to mention making zipping up those skinny jeans more of a struggle.

This again all comes back to how our bodies are mechanically wired to fight off threats and to survive famine.  Our bodies over time have adapted to store fat supplies for a long period of time in the event we are unable to find food.  The problem is, today we are never really short of food!

Stress and ‘bad’ foods

If you crave ice cream or hot chips when you are stressed, this is not just because of your personality.  Our body is biologically and psychologically wired to crave foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt.  This may be due to our brain’s reward system or the presence of cortisol that causes us to want these particular foods.

Stress also leads to our bodies wanting to consume comfort foods.  These are often foods we have strong memories with from childhood, such as the smell of your grandmas chocolate cake.  We then associate conform foods which are of course the solution to reducing your stress with sweet foods.

Let’s be honest, when you are stressed and have had a long day at work, you are less likely to have the mental energy to plan and cook a healthy meal from scratch.  Even mice don’t want to eat healthy food when they are stressed! The University of Pennsylvania found that after being exposed to the smell of a predator, the mice would consume more high-fat food than normal food when given a choice.

Stress and lack of sleep

According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey, more than 40 percent of us lie awake at night due to stress.  This is often due to our minds being overactive and not switching off to get a good night’s sleep.   Stress and worry has been linked to the major cause of insomnia in people worldwide.

A lack of sleep can disrupt the chemicals, ghrelin and leptin, which are responsible for controlling our appetite.  This is a powerful factor in our weight gain or loss.  Stress also causes our blood sugar levels to decrease, leading to fatigue and often causing us to crave carbs and high fatty foods.  In a study where overweight dieters were following a fixed calorie diet, sleep deprivation was found to play a huge role in losing weight. Those assigned to five and a half hours of sleep per night in a sleep lab, lost substantially less weight than those who were getting eight and a half hours sleep.

For those individuals trying to lose weight, it might be worth looking at your stress levels in combination with your diet and exercise.  If you are living a high stress lifestyle, losing weight could be an endless battle thanks to our biological makeup.