August 21, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Stress & Weight Gain

Can stress alone cause weight gain?

I've been dieting and exercising great but I actually gained weight and I think it could be because I've been under a lot of stress lately.

-- "Chai"

Via the blog

I can't provide as detailed of an answer as I would like since I do not know what you classify as "dieting and exercising great."

Healthier eating does not necessarily lead to weight loss.

Some people, for instance, think that substituting soda for fruit juice is a great switch, not realizing that the fruit juice delivers just as many calories -- if not more -- than the soda!

Similarly, replacing French fries with stir fried garlic broccoli drenched in three tablespoons of olive oil provides healthier fats, but not less calories.

Anyhow, the issue of stress and weight gain is a little tricky.

For starters, stress affects people differently.

In the same way that some individuals can develop insomnia while others would rather sleep all day, some completely lose their appetite, and others want to eat an entire sleeve of Oreos in one sitting.

I am sure you have heard of the product CortiSlim, which promises to get rid of "stubborn belly fat" that is a result of a hormone known as cortisol.

The belief is that cortisol -- which the body releases in response to stress in order to get you moving (say, if you are riding your bike and about to get hit by a moving car) -- is overproduced during long periods of stress, in turn stimulating appetite and promoting adipose tissue storage in the abdominal area.

It's worth pointing out that CortiSlim was initially in hot water with the Federal Trade Commission for making unsubstantiated claims.

I personally don't think stress as an individual factor universally leads to weight gain.

Cortisol production varies between people; not everyone undergoing stress produces an abundance of cortisol.

I am sure you know many people who, when undergoing long periods of stress (i.e.: a turbulent breakup or the death of a family member,) can lose significant amounts of weight.

Additionally, a study conducted by New England Research Institutes and published in the April 2007 issue of the Journal of Endocrinology did not find a strong link between cortisol production and obesity.

"Circulating cortisol concentrations are somewhat lower in obese than in nonobese community-dwelling men," the study concludes.

Another interesting observation? "Age-related weight loss - and not gain - was associated with simultaneous increases in serum cortisol concentrations."

Where I do think stress plays a role is in making some people more vulnerable to reaching for high-calorie comfort foods.

I know that, in my experience, an ice cream cone is a lot more appealing than a cup of Greek yogurt on a sad day.

Ultimately, though, we come back to the concept of choice. Of course, some people can have a harder time resisting high-calorie foods when they are stressed, but it is ultimately the consumption of these foods -- as opposed to stress itself -- that can lead to weight gain.

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