Chronic Stress Makes Food Make You Fatter


April 30, 2014 |

New research out of UC San Francisco is the first to demonstrate that highly stressed people who eat a lot of high-fat, high-sugar food are more prone to health risks than low-stress people who eat the same amount of unhealthy food.

“Chronic stress can play an important role in influencing biology, and it’s critical to understand the exact pathways through which it works.” said Kirstin Aschbacher, PhD, an assistant professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and lead author.

“Many people think a calorie is a calorie, but this study suggests that two women who eat the same thing could have different metabolic responses based on their level of stress,” Aschbacher said. “There appears to be a stress pathway that works through diet – for example, it could be similar to what we see in animals, where fat cells grow faster in response to junk food when the body is chronically stressed.”

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of abnormalities – increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels – that occur together, increasing a person’s risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

While this stress-junk food pathway has been well mapped out with rodents and primates, this study is the first to suggest the same pathways may be at work in chronically stressed humans, according to the researchers.

“We can see this relationship exists by simply measuring stress and dietary intake, and looking inside at metabolic health,” said senior author Elissa Epel, PhD. “Diet appears to be a critical variable that can either amplify or protect against the metabolic effects of stress, but we still don’t know the details of how much it takes. It will be helpful to see what happens in our next study, when we have high stress people eat a high sugar diet for a couple weeks.”

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Examining a Stress-Related Biomarker in Women

The study, published online in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, looked at a group of 61 disease-free women; 33 were chronically stressed women caring for a spouse or parent with dementia, and 28 were women with low stress.

Over the course of a year, the women reported their consumption of high sugar, high fat foods.

The researchers evaluated key biological markers associated with elevated metabolic risk. They measured participants’ waistlines and their fat distribution, using ultrasound scans to assess deep abdominal fat deposits. They tested participants’ insulin resistance, one of the core drivers of obesity and diabetes.

They also used a blood test to measure stress hormones and oxidative damage to lipids and cell RNA, a marker that has predicted higher rates of death from diabetes. Oxidative damage of the genome is also an important outcome because it is one factor that can contribute to faster cellular aging.

“We found that more frequent high-fat, high-sugar consumption significantly predicted a larger waistline, more truncal fat, higher oxidative damage, and more insulin resistance, but only among the group of women exposed to chronic stress,” said Aschbacher. “The chronically stressed women didn’t report eating more high sugar, high fat foods than the low stressed women; however, they did have higher levels of a stress-related biomarker, peripheral Neuropeptide Y (NPY).”

The Role of Chronic Stress in Disease Processes

Based on what is known from animal studies, stress triggers greater peripheral NPY which, in combination with junk food, creates larger abdominal fat cells, and these cells may be more prone to metabolic dysregulation.

“The medical community is starting to appreciate how important chronic stress is in promoting and worsening early disease processes,” said Aschbacher. “But there are no guidelines for ‘treating’ chronic stress.  We need treatment studies to understand whether increasing stress resilience could reduce the metabolic syndrome, obesity or diabetes.”

65 Responses to Chronic Stress Makes Food Make You Fatter

  1. 14018919 C.M Managanya May 10, 2014 at 6:41 pm #

    I believe stress to be both an environmental problem and also a psychological issue in which people tend to destruct themselves though eating junk food . Other people end up feeling as if they are fat and worry about getting bigger and end up binge eating. This is a misconception that many people need to move away from. Binge eating will only lead to further medical crisis with serious problems. Others tend to use the term of “bad gene” in order to get out of their laziness. Having a gene that codes for larger/smaller bona structure is no reason not to stay healthy. Remember that you only look as good on the outside as you do on the inside.

  2. Redelinghuys(14034302 May 5, 2014 at 3:23 am #

    Stress is something we all experience at some point in our lives. Stress is often believed to be a motivation and thus a positive input in studies, but this blog has now showed us that stress is not healthy at all. According to thus blog, individuals that stress have the tendency to gain weight easier, which could lead to a host of health issues.

    Also, obesity has been linked to poor academic achievement. Stress actually causes poor memory and obesity, two unattractive qualities.

    I believe that we should all try to stress less. Some people are stressed by nature, but we could all benefit by stressing less.

  3. 14238889 May 4, 2014 at 11:35 pm #

    I found this article to be really addressing to the serious matter that many of us is facing this days, which is chronic stress. I usually thought that being stress actually make one to lose weight, because the metabolic activities are taking place faster.Honestly speaking when people are stressed especially students during exams, they tend to eat a lot of junk food as a way of coping with stress and keeping their mind focused. I also do so myself, only to wake up one day with an increase in body weight. Managing stress is not an easy task for every one.

  4. Hlamalane S. Shilote 14005086 May 4, 2014 at 2:21 pm #

    Chronic stress affects one’s appetite and also changes their biological processes in the body thus enabling weight gain. Recent research done at Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco portray that it can also increase cortisol levels and disrupt the normal cortisol rhythms which in return causes damage in the body such as: raising one’s blood pressure, craving sugar due to hunger, reduced ability to burn fat and also the rate at which fat is stored in the body is increased as well.

    Metabolic rate for someone who is chronically stressed or who is not differs. Fat cells grow faster when junk is consumed by someone who is chronically stressed. Metabolic syndrome is experienced making them prone to the risk of having a stroke, heart disease or even diabetes. This results in a greater Peripheral Neuropeptide Y making that person to experience metabolic dysregulation.

    So next time someone is planning to lose weight any time soon they should try to decrease their stress levels and stop emotional eating as they are the key to weight gain instead of weight loss.

  5. u14036429 May 4, 2014 at 11:30 am #

    Obesity and over weight is a sensitive subject to some people. A reason for obesity and over weight is stress.

    Research on stress that causes weight gain shows that serotonin levels, a “feel good” hormone is produced and released if a person eats junk food. Because of the serotonin people eat more junk food to feel relived of the stress and gains weight in the prose

    Stress also causes that more Cortisol to be released into the blood stream. Cortisol stimulates a raise in blood sugar levels and causes that the person develops an appetite. The exes glucose is stored as fat and causes weight gain.

    it is often over looked that stress can cause health problems like obesity and many other health problems. If you suffer from obesity because of stress or just stress there is a lot of sites where help can be found on how to solve your problem

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