Stress and Obesity (Part 1.)

We live in a crazy, stressful world. Some of us worry about everything, from the impending nuclear war with North Korea to whether or not we’re going to get a table in Starbucks next to an electrical outlet. But did you know that stressing (in general) causes us to eat more of the foods that are bad for us (like mac n cheese n doughnuts) and less of the foods that are good for us (like kale-infused broccoli). That makes sense: when I’m uncomfortable I’m going to attempt to alleviate my discomfort with comfort food.

But it also sucks. Especially if what you’re worried about is trying to lose weight, or not putting on weight before your wedding. (Although frankly if you’re getting married I would suggest you’ve got a lot more to worry about than whether your cummerbund fits, but I digress.) So, for those who are perpetually dieting or looking for the next weight-loss fad or magic pill or constantly counting calories, you’re most likely sabotaging all your good – if misguided – work by stressing over the outcome.

One recent study (1) looked at the relationship between cortisol levels (the hormone that shows up in large quantities every time we’re stressed) and obesity in 2,500 participants over four years and found a strong positive correlation between chronic stress and increased weight, waist circumference, and overall obesity. I know what you’re going to ask: did the high stress levels cause the weight gain, or were the heaviest participants stressing more than everyone else because they were overweight? It’s a great question, and one that we don’t really know the answer to, but we can probably surmise it’s a combination of both.

Here’s what we think is happening. There appears to be a continuous loop between obesity, cortisol, and an unhealthy lifestyle. The reason why this loop works so well is that many of the things we associate with an unhealthy lifestyle – eating a ton of sugar, drinking too much alcohol, not getting enough sleep, taking too many medications, always feeling anxious and stressed, and even suffering from chronic pain and inflammation – are known to increase the production of cortisol. So, whenever we’re stressing the body – physically as well as mentally – we have a propensity to gain weight.

Another particularly interesting study (2) looked at the effect of acute stress on making specific food choices, essentially trying to confirm our fondness for chocolate cake when life is not going quite according to plan (not that we should ever need an ‘excuse’ to eat chocolate cake). The participants were what might be termed ‘normal’ people in the sense that they had a fairly good idea of what a healthy diet looks like, but they weren’t immune to the attractions of the occasional treat at Krispy Kreme. The idea behind the study was quite simple: subject the subjects to acute stress (presumably by having them imagine being in a Starbucks with electrical outlets at every table but they’d left their phone-charger at home) and then asking them to make very quick decisions on choosing foods with varying health and taste profiles.  

What this study was essentially looking at was self-control: what makes us willing to forego very desirable long-term outcomes (being healthy and living longer) for the sake of immediate gratification (eating a doughnut)? It seems like it would be a no-brainer: why would we jeopardize our long-term health for a quick fix? Generally speaking, the ability to make the ‘right’ choice has been shown to be linked to a person’s physical, social, and economic well-being. For example, if I offer you five hundred bucks today (which I’m not actually doing so don’t write to me asking for it) or five thousand bucks in a year’s time, you’ll take the five hundred if you’re broke and the five thousand if you’ve got money. However, we are now finding out that even moderate stress can affect decision-making, and the truth is that most of us live with some level of stress in our daily lives.

The results of the study were clear: acute stress (and increased cortisol levels) impacted brain activity during self-control choices to such an extent that immediate rewards were much more attractive than long-term goals. So, even armed with all the knowledge we could ever need in terms of what constitutes a healthy and nutritious diet, stressing and worrying will sabotage all our good intentions and point us to whatever we think will give us the greatest short-term satisfaction.

Things are looking bad. Stressing in general leads to weight gain. Stressing also affects decision-making so that we choose unhealthy foods which leads to weight gain. Things couldn’t get worse, right? Wrong. A third study (3) (and the last one I’ll mention because I think I’m stressing you out) examined the effects of healthy and less healthy foods on inflammation in the body (excessive inflammation has been linked to a number of chronic diseases including arthritis, asthma, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and cardiovascular disease). In the absence of stress the foods pretty much did what they were supposed to do: the unhealthy food increased inflammation while the healthy food didn’t. Unfortunately, when stress was added to the equation even the healthy food caused inflammation in the body and began to act almost exactly like unhealthy food.

So now we have it all:
a.    Stressing without eating causes you to gain weight
b.    Stressing removes food self-control and you make really bad food choices
c.    Stressing makes even the healthiest foods act like unhealthy foods

Of course, this is where I come to the rescue and tell you there’s a bright side to all of this. Here goes. There’s a bright side to all of this, only I’m not sure what it is. Instead I can give you the answer to the question, “what do I do about all of this?” Just don’t stress. Don’t worry. Keep a positive mental attitude. Much easier said than done, right? In Part 2 I’ll give you better answers, and a few suggestions, and a strategy for getting stress – and food choices – under control.


About the author: Alan Greening is Chief Fitness Officer of Benefitness Partners, a Denver-based company committed to the health and wellness of companies and their employees. With a focus on event-based coaching, Benefitness Partners gets employees moving in a fun, educational, and inclusive manner, helping companies develop a healthier, happier, more engaged workforce.

(1)Obesity, March 2017, Volume 25, Issue 3.
(2)Neuron, August 2015, Volume 87, Issue 3.
(3)Molecular Psychiatry (2017) 22, 476-482.