Previous research has shown that stress can lead to “comfort eating”. That means, when stressed, some people turn to eating foods high in fat and sugar to make them feel better. Is that true for you? Can stress really make us fatter?
Researchers from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London carried out a research study to try to see if this was true. They measured the level of the main stress hormone, cortisol, and compared that with the body mass index of a group of 2527 adults aged 54 years or older, who were part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.
Many research studies that measure stress measure the level of cortisol in the blood, urine, or saliva. What made this study different is that the researchers measured the level of cortisol in hair samples, rather than in urine, saliva, or blood.
In this way, the research measured the level of stress a person experienced over a longer period of time. Cortisol levels vary from day to day, so if a research study uses urine, blood, or saliva testing, they may get an inaccurate result. They may sample the person on a day when they were particularly stressed, or not stressed at all. But hair samples measure the average stress a person has suffered over a longer period of time.
The results about stress and obesity
The English researchers took a 2 cm sample of the participants’ hair, cut close to the scalp. The results showed that the people with the higher levels of cortisol had a much higher probability of being obese, especially having a larger than healthy waist circumference. This was defined as greater than 102 cm. in men, and 88 cm. in women.
This study confirms that people who had been more stressed out were fatter than the people less stressed out. Does this prove that being stressed makes you fatter? No, because it could be the other way around—that being fat makes a person stressed, and raises their cortisol levels. But the researchers believe that the likely explanation is that yes, people more stressed tend to eat too much, and gain weight, especially around their waist.
The researchers are planning further study to figure out if stress caused the obesity, or the other way around. But as Dr. Susan Fried, a director of Diabetes Metabolism Obesity Institute, suggests—if you are under chronic stress, look at your eating patterns. Do you turn to higher fat or more sugary food to temporarily help your mood?
Stress leads to more cortisol being released from our adrenal glands, and previous studies show that high cortisol levels influence our appetite, making us crave high-calorie foods.
If you are overweight
Think if stress might be making you eat too much. It might make you feel better in the short term, but in the longer term, gaining weight could make you feel even worse, causing a viscous cycle. So the answer is: make sure you are not using food as a “crutch” to make you feel better. Better to find other ways to deal with your stress, such as exercise, psychotherapy, meditation, or yoga.
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