Obesity: Don’t Stress About It

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Arawa Kolossa
About the Author

Research master student in Cognitive Neuroscience, specialised in lifelong and developmental plasticity (memory)

Obesity Stress (credit David D'amore)

Were you ever fat shamed? If yes, It must have not felt good to hear that. I am sorry this happened to you. This is not another blog on how unhealthy and life-threatening it is to be obese. Instead, I will focus on recognizing stressful situations and explain what stress is and why it is related to obesity. Most importantly, at the very end  I’ll tell you some techniques on how to handle the fuss that comes from being obese.

No one can deny the health issues related to being overweight, as no one can deny the effect of stress on your health (mental and physical).  Focusing on your weight and health issues can be a huge source of stress. Furthermore, obesity comes at a social cost too. We are bombarded with opinions of other people, especially on the internet where it is even easier than in real life to shame someone. We are continuously reminded of what’s supposedly “good” and “bad” by other people. For example, you might have encountered that  “funny” person that is always ready to call you out for being the way you are, with comments such as: “if I don’t eat it, I am sure that fatty will eat mine too”. I am pretty sure this person doesn’t care about how you feel hearing that “joke”. Maybe that stresses you.

There might also be some things that stress you more than a bully, but they are harder to recognize. So now think, what about your friends and family commenting on your weight with something like “maybe you shouldn’t eat this”, or “you gained even more weight”. I am sure these people care about you and they say those things only to help, however they might not realise that they’re doing the opposite of helping by stressing you.

And then there’s a third source of stress. What about looking at yourself in the mirror and not being happy with what you see? What about trying to go to the gym and ending up running away as you always compare yourself to others and feel ashamed of your body? Some people experience all of the aforementioned situations every day. These can generate tons of stress.

So now, what is stress and how can it be harmful?

Nerds like myself, call stress “high cortisol levels”. Usually, cortisol levels peak in the morning, as you need to wake up, and then they start decreasing until you go to sleep. However, we can also influence those cortisol levels by going through stressful situations. For example, if you are in the woods and you see an angry bear your cortisol levels (stress) will spike. Luckily, it is not very common to see bears in the woods, but giving a presentation often has the same effect on your cortisol levels. Such relatively short moments of stress are, however, quite harmless and can even help you perform better.

You might think, what could possibly stress you more than a big bear coming your way? The answer is easy: seeing that angry bear every time you go in the woods! This will prolong stress. Now imagine replacing the bear with a bully or a picture of yourself. If you are bullied every day or if you are hard on yourself almost all the time you’re likely generating tons of stress. This could be as stressful as meeting a furious bear in the woods every day.  If you continuously experience a lot of stress it could be defined as chronic stress, which is the most harmful kind of stress.

 Many researchers found that these high levels of stress could lead to numerous health issues, apart from decreasing your everyday quality of life. Prolonged stress could result in experiencing anxiety, irritability, or muscle tension. If you are feeling overwhelmed and or sad, that could also be stress. In short, do not let others or yourself be that angry bear that stresses you in the woods! You can handle stress!

Always remember:

Low stress is related to better nutrition, mood, and sleep as compared to high stress!

Before I give you some tips on how to handle stress, I want to explain to you that being overweight is not only up to what choices you make.  From a scientific perspective, everything is a result of two things: environment and genes.

Environment is defined as everything that influences you after you are born, from how your family raised you, to your experiences at school, playing or travelling.

There are numerous environmental factors that can influence your health. Stress is one of the most important ones, which could be an end-result of many situations (see above)!                                On the other end, genes are what your mom and dad passed to you before birth, such as having blonde hair, brown eyes or being obese.  In fact, obesity is 40 to 70% heritable, which means that you have a higher chance to be overweight if one of your family members is. What if I tell you that stress could “activate” some of those genes?

Let me explain further. Some scientists study genetically modified animals. Through this we know that there are animals that are more anxious than others or more obese than others, only because of their genes. The interesting thing is that when these genetically modified animals with the “obese” genes have little stress in their lives, they do not develop as many weight problems. Obviously, you are not a genetically modified animal. However, stress might impact your wellbeing more than you think!

Worrying about your physical appearance or concerning other people’s opinions might be very distressing to you. So, instead of doing that, focus on recognizing what are the sources of stress for you and handle them!

How can you handle stress?

There is no wrong or right way to handle stress. You might have your own techniques. However, here are some techniques that are science approved.

MINDFULNESSMindfulness can be practiced any time of the day,  it’s relatively easy and it can only take a minute! The aim of this technique is to be aware of everything that surrounds you, without any interpretation or judgments. Just enjoy the moment. You can do this before waking up, before meals, or before going to bed. You can also do this while on the toilet if you wish! The key is to be consistent and to try to do it every day.
BREATHINGIf you experience high stress, breathe it out! Take one minute to breathe in and out slowly. That’s it.
MEDITATION I already mentioned mindfulness, which is a kind of meditation. However, if you feel up for a challenge meditation includes many activities that can help you. If you feel brave, you could even pair meditation with yoga or other light physical activity.
RECOGNIZING STRESSA good way to handle stress is to anticipate that you might get stressed from a certain situation. Ask yourself how you could handle that situation in the least stressful way. Being prepared to stress might help!
FAMILY and FRIENDSUnderstand that the people who are close to you love you and would only want your happiness. Get encouragement and support from them!
SPORTS and SEXPhysical activity (is a good way to release stress, make use of it! Even a short, 10 minute walk could already be beneficial!
SLEEPUsually, young people need at least 8 hours of sleep. Remember that lack of sleep can impact how you react to stress. The same goes for sleeping over 12 hours. Be consistent, try to always sleep around the same time, and wake up at the same time!

On the last note, everyone should learn about eating healthy, as this helps both your physical and mental health. You can read more about this on our pages on Food and Mental Health and Healthy Nutrition.  Also, if you experience distress that you can’t handle, a mental health practitioner can help you.

Thank you for reading! ☺

Photo credit: “Victoria, intimations collection by David D’amore  “

Another website that might help you:

Robertson, S. (2021, May 23). Obesity and stress. News. Retrieved March 21, 2022, from     https://www.news-  medical.net/health/Obesity-and             stress.aspx#:~:text=It%20has%20long%20been%20theorized,can%20lead%20to%20weight%20gain.

Where can you double-check what I am claiming? … Read the following scientific articles to know more

Genes and obesity:

Loos, R.J.F., Yeo, G.S.H. The genetics of obesity: from discovery to biology. Nat Rev Genet 23, 120–133 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41576-021-00414-z

→ PDF here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41576-021-00414-z#citeas

Relationship between stress and obesity:

Tomiyama A. J. (2019). Stress and Obesity. Annual review of psychology, 70, 703–718. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-102936

→ PDF here: https://www.dishlab.org/pubs/AR%20Stress%20&%20Obesity.pdf

How to cope with stress:

Ajibewa, T. A., Adams, T. A., Gill, A. K., Mazin, L. E., Gerras, J. E., & Hasson, R. E. (2021). Stress coping strategies and stress reactivity in adolescents with overweight/obesity. Stress and health : journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress37(2), 243–254. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.2987

→ PDF here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287277701_Stress_Depression_and_Obesity_among_Adolescents_A_Narrative_Review