The Link Between Stress and Obesity

SmartShape Weight Loss Centre

Hi Everyone,

Did you know? APRIL is Stress Awareness Month!

In the next couple of weeks, our blogs from our healthcare professionals will be focusing on the subject, its association with obesity and coping strategies to help you fight the stressors in your life.

In 2001, the Canadian Mental Health Association / COMPASS surveyed 500 Canadians and revealed that 43% of individuals experienced stressed a few times a week while 24% of Canadians experienced it at least one a month. When asked what the main contributor to stress in their life was: 51% attributed it to work, 48% said financial, while 27% said their health is a main source of their stress.  

For years, many people have suspected that stress and obesity are linked — and now scientific research has found evidence to support this connection. Specific biochemical reactions appear to help explain this link and, as we better understand these reasons it may help develop strategies to deal with the epidemic of obesity.

The most insidious aspect of the link between stress and obesity is that it tends to be self-reinforcing.  Very often, when people are stressed they may eat inappropriately. If this causes them to gain weight, that can cause even more stress.

The Biological Connection

When we are stressed we tend to crave comfort foods that are high in fat or sugar. There are specific hormones that may play a role in this process.

Serotonin.  When we eat carbohydrates, such as bread and potatoes, it raises the body’s serotonin level.  Serotonin is the body’s feel-good chemical. It makes us feel and maybe even euphoric in some situations. When we are stressed we don’t tend to make smart food choices. Many people will tend to choose carbohydrates when stressed, but often they are the carbohydrates that are also loaded with fat, like muffins, pastries, doughnuts, and cookies. We usually don’t choose the more “healthy” carbohydrates like whole wheat pasta.

Cortisol. Researchers have also discovered that acute and chronic stress will cause the body to release excess cortisol. Cortisol is important in regulating fat storage in the body, and is also known to increase appetite and may encourage cravings for sweet or fatty foods.

Neuropeptide Y.  More recent studies also suggest that our bodies may process food differently when we’re under stress. One study found that lab mice fed a diet high in fat and sugar gained more weight when placed under stressful conditions than mice that were not stressed. Researchers linked that phenomenon to a molecule called neuropeptide Y that is released from nerve cells during stress and encourages fat accumulation. A diet high in fat and sugar appears to further promote the release of neuropeptide Y. 

Happy reading!