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The connection between stress and weight gain

Kolasa, Kathy
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Kathy Kolasa

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

I heard that stress might cause obesity. Can you explain that in layman’s terms? — A.D., Greenville

A Experts continue to look for the causes of obesity. Some researchers have been studying the role of stress hormones, and their early results are mentioned in articles in newspapers, blogs and magazines. I asked Erin Schneider, an ECU dietetic student, to tell you about stress and weight gain. Here is what she wants to you know about the connection between the two.

Stressors, whether it be stress from work, relationships, pregnancy or from social environments, can lead to decreased time spent in sleep, a lack of motivation for activity, as well as enhanced appetite and cravings. People respond differently to stress. Some react by “stress-eating,” while others, like me, do not eat when stressed.

During stressful events, some people increase their energy intake, regardless of hunger. Stress-eating is thought to be caused by hormones activating the brain's reward system. The brain initiates behavioral reinforcement — an action that strengthens a behavior. When the brain starts reinforcement, it causes you to eat more to block the effects of stress. The behavior is enforced every time you are stressed, causing these same effects each time you are exposed to stressors. These hormones also can cause fat to settle around the stomach area.

Lack of sleep also can result in a similar effect as stress-eating. You may find that stress causes disruption in your sleep. A loss of sleep can change hormones, tampering with your normal circadian rhythm — your internal 24-hour clock. This clock is responsible for physiological processes to occur, like when to sleep or wake up or eat. Similar to what happens in stress-eating, the hormones activate reward-driven motivation, and it may lead an individual to prefer high-calorie foods and drinks.

So to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, the logical thinking would be to live a stress-free life, which may be easier to say than do. While I am not an expert in stress management, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America does have some good tips. One tip is to limit your caffeine intake. Caffeine can magnify stress and anxiety, making the stressors worsen. Another tip is to take time out of the day to do things you enjoy, like gardening or watching your favorite show on Netflix (but be careful to not watch a whole season in one sitting), or going on a walk.

When I have a stressful day, I enjoy going for a run to clear my head. For more tips, go to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website at https://adaa.org.

Besides behavioral changes to cope with stress, eating a healthy diet that avoids deficiencies of important nutrients including vitamin D, niacin, folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and omega-3. A lack of these nutrients have been shown to increase susceptibility to stress. Good sources of vitamin D are eggs, milk and fortified breakfast cereals. Niacin can be found in high-protein foods including beef, fish, peanut butter, avocados and fortified cereals. Sources of folate include orange juice, broccoli, peanuts, spinach, romaine lettuce and avocados. Vitamin B6 can be found in bananas, beef, nuts, pork, chicken and fish. Vitamin B12 is in animal products like milk and dairy foods, along with meat, fish and eggs. Good sources of omega-3 are walnuts, fish and flax seed.

For more tips on foods that contain these vitamins and minerals, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website eatright.org. If you have difficulties incorporating these vitamins into your diet, taking supplements may help to deflect some of the effects of stress. However, discuss your plan to take dietary supplements with your family doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist.

Dear readers: I hope you will allow me a personal moment. My longtime friend and mentor Bee Marks died recently at age 95. She encouraged my efforts to communicate with you, the public, about food and nutrition issues at a time when little evidence-based information was available to you. She was such a bright light and touched so many lives, especially of women making their way in food and nutrition education and public relations. We all felt she added such style to the world and was such a voice of possibilities. We will miss her mentoring.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.

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