Psychosocial Stress, Obesity, and Diet

Higher psychosocial stress predicts more body fat and poorer diet

Additional stressors may lead to even more body fat

Psychosocial stress appears to promote formation of body fat but, as of 2011, longitudinal studies showed inconsistent results. A meta-analysis involved 14 studies with 32 separate analyses of stress and measures of body fat. Twenty-two of the analyses showed no significant effect of stress, 2 showed a negative effect, and only 8 showed the expected correlation (more stress predicted more body fat). A meta-analysis of the 32 analyses revealed a small but significant effect of stress on body fat. The researchers noted that the effect was stronger in longer-term, higher-quality studies of men that controlled for baseline body fat measures. This meta-analysis revealed a modest relationship between psychosocial stress and body fat, but not the expected strong relationship.

Psychosocial stress predicts increased risk of overweight and obesity. Previous research investigated the effect of single stress factors on overweight and obesity. A recent study expanded research to evaluate links between eight sources of stress individually and collectively and excess body weight. The stress sources included childhood adversity, acute life events, financial strain, neighborhood stressors, employment stressors, job discrimination, relationship stressors, and life discrimination. Data came from a representative sample of 2,983 Chicago residents with an average age of 43 years in the Chicago Community Adult Health Study. Most participants were overweight or obese.

Financial stress was the only stressor that significantly predicted risk of overweight when all other sources of stress were accounted for. Early life adversity, acute life events, financial stain, and relationship stressors all significantly predicted higher risk of obesity after accounting for all other sources of stress. The highest quintile of a composite measure of all eight sources of stress predicted a significant 20 percent higher risk of obesity compared to the lowest quintile. Participants in the highest quintile of four different sources of stress had a significant 57 percent higher risk of obesity compared to participants not in the top quintile of any source. Unsurprisingly, more sources of psychosocial stress predicted greater risk of obesity.

Expectant mothers who experience high levels of chronic stress may make poorer food choices than non-stressed mothers. Researchers recruited 353 low-income pregnant women at four locations in Michigan to determine if stress levels affected food choices. Participants came from Special Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children programs and had an average age of 25.7 years. The Perceived Stress Scale evaluated stress over the previous month with responses to nine items each on a four-point scale. Fat, fruit, and vegetables intakes were assessed with the Rapid Food Screener. High, as opposed to low, stress predicted significantly lower intake of fruit and vegetables, even after accounting for confounding factors. Fat intake was not related to stress level. High chronic stress diminishes executive function, which predicts unhealthy eating, overeating, weight gain, and obesity. Given the effect of a poor maternal diet on fetal and newborn health, helping pregnant women deal effectively with high stress should be a key public health priority.

These studies support the making healthy choice to Defuse Chronic Stress. Learn how to deal effectively with chronic stress and reduce your risk of becoming overweight or obese and the adverse metabolic effects associated with excess body fat.

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