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Women, Stress and Weight-Gain

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Updated February 15, 2014

Out of all my female friends, only one loses her appetite when she is under pressure; the rest (myself included) reach for the nearest comfort food -- and plenty of it -- at the slightest sign of stress. It seems we're not alone.

Women, Men, and the Stress-Eating Response

A 2000 study found that women may be at particular risk of stress-induced eating and weight gain. Of course, if you've ever polished off a dozen Krispy Kremes at the end of a particularly daunting day at work, you probably don't need scientific proof of this.

Another study showed that a high body mass index (BMI) was found in adults who eat and drink in response to stress, particularly women. That higher BMI could likely be attributed to the foods the researchers found stress-eaters often consume, which includes hamburgers, pizza, and chocolate. Additionally, stress-eaters were found to consume alcohol more often, which could account for a large number of additional, empty calories.

Interestingly, there were a variety of common lifestyle-related predictors for men becoming stress-eaters in the study, such as job-loss or divorce. For women, the main cause was narrowed down to one issue -- lack of emotional support.

The Cortisol Connection

There is a natural, stress-related hormone called cortisol that may contribute to weight issues, particularly abdominal fat. High amounts of cortisol are released into the blood stream when you are under stress. Receptors for cortisol are located in your abdomen, which triggers fat storage there. In 2000, researchers found that women with a high waist-to-hip ratio -- both overweight and slim -- secreted more cortisol under stress and reported more stress in their daily lives than women with lower waist-to-hip ratios.

Additionally, excess cortisol may actually cause your metabolism to slow down. This could mean that even if you don't consume more calories than usual, you could gain weight. But since stress stimulates the appetite, it is likely that you take in more calories than usual when under stress, which only compounds the problem. Together, eating more calories and having a slower metabolism than usual is a "double-whammy" in the stress/weight connection; not only do you tend to take in more calories than usual, but you don't burn them efficiently, either.

It is unknown at this time exactly how cortisol may affect eating behaviors or appetite directly, but research is ongoing; whatever the cause, the tendency to eat those high-fat foods mentioned earlier may actually cause a vicious cycle of poor food choices. Women who eat high-fat diets have been shown both to have increased cortisol reactivity and greater preference for sweet foods, according to researchers at the University of California at San Francisco.

Though we now connect cortisol to weight gain, it is ill-advised to use pills to decrease or prevent cortisol-related weight gain. In 2004, the FTC cracked down on two widely-advertised products claiming to reduce weight gain caused by cortisol. As FTC Spokesperson Lydia B. Parnes said in the related news release, "No pill can replace a healthy program of diet and exercise."

How to Cope

Since lack of emotional support is so directly linked to women's tendency to stress-eat, it is important that you build your own support network. This could mean joining a support group or in-person weight-loss program. Or, it may be as simple as knowing which friend or family member you can turn to for support and motivation when you begin eating in response to stress. Whether they're an e-mail, phone call, or visit away, reaching out to others for help is crucial to getting the emotional support we crave.

Instead of reaching for a snack, walk outside for a brisk 5-minute walk or walk up and down some stairs a few times. A burst of activity may help suppress your appetite. Simply moving around or fidgeting may help alleviate tension, so if you have been seated at your desk or phone for a while, just get up and move a little even if you can‘t get away for an actual walk.

Get regular exercise; experts agree that regular physical activity is one of the most effective ways to deal with stress. It helps to regulate cortisol levels, it can help alleviate depression, and it will help you get a better night’s sleep (just don‘t exercise within a few hours of bedtime).

Consider relaxation exercises that will ease your anxiety without food, such as imagery and guided visualization, deep breathing, and meditation. Try an activity that combines relaxation with physical activity, such as tai chi or yoga.

Get enough sleep. If you don’t sleep well when you’re stressed, that may have an impact on your weight loss efforts, too. (Research has shown there may be a connection between lack of sleep and weight gain.)

One of the best ways to get a handle on any type of emotional eating is to keep a food diary. Simply keeping a notebook of your food and beverage intake along with notations about your feelings before and after eating is a great start. Review the diary every few days to get a picture of what feelings prompt you to overeat, and take the time to think about alternatives to eating.

To keep an online food diary, visit About.com's Calorie Count.

To learn more about stress management, visit the About.com stress Guide site.

Sources

Epel, Elissa, Ph.D, et al. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 26 (2001) 37–49. 19 April 2008.

Epel, Elissa, Ph.D, and Bruce McEwen, Ph.D. et al. Stress and Body Shape: Stress-Induced Cortisol Secretion Is Consistently Greater Among Women With Central Fat. Psychosomatic Medicine 62:623-632 (2000). 12 April 2008.

Federal Trade Commission. FTC Targets Products Claiming to Affect the Stress Hormone Cortisol, 5 Oct 2004. 20 April 2008

Laitinen Ph.D, Janaa, and Ellen Ek M.Sc., et al. Stress-Related Eating and Drinking Behavior and Body Mass Index and Predictors of This Behavior. Preventive Medicine. 2002 Jan;34(1):29-39. 14 April 2008.

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