A few years ago a movie came out called, Eat. Drink. Man. Woman. It won the Best Foreign Picture Award in Hollywood that year. In the movie people did a lot of eating and drinking without getting fat.
But that is Hollywood. In real life, when people constantly eat and drink, they gain weight. There have been many theories over the years about why people constantly eat and drink too much and gain weight. Some theories focus on genetics and biology, suggesting that people become fat because of a problem with their metabolism, their digestive system or their hypothalamus.
Other theories have concentrated on psychological factors, making the case that eating is a way of dealing with stress. Overeating, these theories point out, is a way of burying the things that make us stressed out.
Now a new study in the journal, Obesity, has confirmed a link between stress and obesity. By measuring the amount of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the hair, Sarah Jackson, the lead author of the study, was able to compare levels of stress with levels of obesity. She and her coauthors found that there was a match. Obese people had higher levels of cortisol in their hair, which meant they were more stressed out.
The study examined data collected from men and women 54 and older who were taking part in a longitudinal study of aging. Participants were tested every two years starting in 2002, and at the end of the study they provided a hair clipping. The study team tested cortisol levels that accumulated in the hair over time in the 2,527 male and female participants and found that those with more cortisol in their hair were likely to be obese or have excess fat around their midsections.
Commenting on the study, Dr. David Katz, Director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, said, “You might think you need to improve your diet, or exercise more, and that’s true. But for you [the obese person], the first priority might be to manage stress better so you are more capable of doing those things, and reduce a hormonal barrier to weight control into the bargain.”
It is well known that people who go on diets or exercise programs often succeed in losing weight, but then gain it back again soon afterwards. The factor that often isn’t taken into consideration is stress. If people have grown used to over-eating in order to deal with stress, they will continue to do that after losing weight. The key, then, to losing weight and keeping it off is learning how to reduce stress in a way other than eating.
Even before that, you may need to become more aware of exactly what’s stressing you out. Often it is a man. Often it is a woman. Often it is stress about relating to other people. Often it is stress about relating to yourself. Often it is stress about eating too much and getting fat.
Now that the evidence is mounting that obesity is linked with stress, we need to put special emphasis on the stress factor, what it is about for each individual and how to deal with it in the best possible way.
Once you know what is stressing you out, it will be easier to figure out what to do about it.