Part 1: Obesity and stress – plus a lesson about reviews

obesityIf you think about your own life, you likely understand intuitively that stress often leads to overeating. In my own life, if I think about stressful times, I can picture myself standing in front of the pantry looking for something to munch on.

Now a new literature review describes the link between eating behavior and stress, and explains how these factors can lead to obesity. The review pulls together evidence from more than 100 studies to describe how stress triggers unhealthy eating behaviors that can lead to obesity.

When the human body experiences a stressful situation, it releases a hormone that suppresses appetite so that it can focus energy on the fight-or-flight response.  But in the next several hours, the body releases another hormone that stimulates  hunger.  In the case of a physical stressor (think about a man running from a grizzly bear centuries ago), this reaction helps the body replace calories burned in dealing with the stressful situation. But in modern society, most of our stress is psychological in nature, which means our bodies are trying to replace calories that we never burned.

People who experience chronic psychological stress have chronically elevated hormone levels, which leads to continually stimulated eating behaviors. In addition, stress hormones increase our cravings for high-calorie foods. And the subsequent eating helps to suppress future feelings of stress.  Over the course of a lifetime, the evidence shows that our stress levels shape our eating patterns, and have a major impact on our weight.

There is also evidence that demonstrates these cycles are programmed early in life, and even during the prenatal stage. Stress and poor nutrition in pregnant women can have significant long-term consequences for feeding and behavior of their children.

What does all of this mean for us?  Understanding the hormonal reactions that trigger eating behaviors can make us aware of when we’re eating unnecessarily, and also help us design more effective weight loss treatments.

Check in next week for a follow up post about the difference between systematic meta-analyses and literature reviews.

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