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Stress

I’ve shared a lot of weight loss tips on this site. I’ve talked about what I eat (everything from cat food to erotic baked goods.) and how much I exercise and how I keep my spirits high. But I have been holding back one piece of weight loss advice that a recent article hit on: I lead a low-stress life.

In a recent study, scientists got their kicks by stressing out mice and feeding them junk food. The gobbledy-gook science talk summary is here and an article that explains what it means without having to cite 12 authors is here. As Dean Ornish explains it:

Chronic stress alone didn’t have much effect on weight gain in only two weeks, nor did a high-fat, high-sugar diet. However, combining both together was especially toxic and markedly increased abdominal fat deposits in only two weeks.

Over a longer period of time—three months—the high-fat, high-sugar diet caused obesity, but the amount of weight gain increased three-fold when this same diet was given to mice who were also put under chronic stress. It also caused metabolic syndrome (glucose intolerance that can lead to diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and inflammation).

When the researchers blocked the effects of neuropeptide Y, it reduced stress-induced visceral (belly) fat by 50 percent “without any discernible effect on food intake, which remained as increased as it was” according to the investigators.

In other words, they ate the same amount of food, didn’t exercise more, yet their belly fat decreased by half when the effects of neuropeptide Y were blocked. This is amazing stuff.

I doubt anyone will be terribly shocked by the results of this study, but it is nice that you can now site a medical journal if someone gets on your case for gaining five pounds during finals week. Who hasn’t noticed friends or family members who’ve gained weight under times of stress? In contrast, I work a 40 hour week at a fairly low-pressure job. I’m a web developer, so I sit at a computer most of the day designing web sites, slicing them up, programming applications and listening to lots of Internet radio. When the server crashes, I’m not the one who has to fix it. When the phone rings, I’m not the one who has to talk to the customers. I don’t even have to feed the fish in the aquarium. It’s been great for my mental health and I suspect it’s been good for my weight loss as well. I’ve never been thinner and my knowledge of indie music has never been better.

A similar theme emerged when I watched a British TV special recently called The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. The host, Stephen Fry, interviewed several people living with manic-depression who had sought different ways to manage the disease from lithium to electric-shock therapy. One woman had chosen not to take medication but managed the disease by eating healthy, taking Omega-3 supplements, exercising regularly and quitting her high-stress job as a neuro-surgeon to work part-time as a general practitioner. When I saw her segment I thought, “Well, that doesn’t just keep you sane, it’s a good way to lose weight too.” I think leading a healthy, low-stress life is the best way to prevent a lot of diseases, be it a manic episode, heart disease, diabetes or cancer.

Granted, you don’t have total control over the stress in your life. Even the most careful planning can’t prevent loved ones from dying or companies from being downsized. Things could all go to hell in the Middle East and we could be living in an apocalyptic wasteland in 10 years. Everyone has to deal with some stress and some people are just born into more stressful situations than others be it because of money, race or gender. And despite all that, it’s still possible that you could eliminate all the stress from your life and still be fat. But I think managing the stress that you can control is very helpful element in a long-term weight loss plan. And it’s hard to do of course, just like saying “eat less, move more” sounds so very simple but is very hard to pull off. Sometimes stress doesn’t care if you want it to move out of your life, it will just kick down the door and eat your face anyway.

But if someone is really serious about losing weight, they might want to see how they can cut stress out of their lives. Depending on how serious you are, you might even want to find a new job. Maybe that sounds extreme, but there are people who move to different parts of town so their kids will go to better schools. Should it really be considered extreme to rearrange parts of your life so you can live as healthy a lifestyle as possible? I always talk about how I am not on a diet but that I’ve changed my lifestyle. The stress caused by your job, family, and life is certainly part of your lifestyle. Thus it’s fair game for change. I know some people really thrive on high-stress, high-stakes jobs, which make them feel alive. Or they really want to get ahead in their jobs and need to put lots of hours in. I think that’s fine, but if you make that choice you might just have to accept that the cost of living a high-stress lifestyle is that it could make you fatter. Those are just the benefit/cost decisions everyone has to make in life.

Oops! This got posted early (before I had edited it) because I didn’t understand what the “Scheduled Entry” feature of my blogging software actually did. All fixed and live again now. Sorry for the weirdness.

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24 Comments

Lori • July 11, 2007 at 7:45 pm

Just got off the treadmill and am facing a dinner of boring low-calorieness and read your post. I gotta tell you, if we’re going to live in an apocolyptic wasteland in only ten years, my reaction is that I’m thinking I might go low-stress AND have a damn cupcake.

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Laura • July 12, 2007 at 7:39 am

This is so depressing! I am going through a pretty stressful DECADE at the moment and I think it probably has been one of the things that have continued to hinder and even derail me continually in my efforts to lose weight. There are some things (such as having a teenager in my house!) that create stress and it will not go away until (hopefully!) he matures and becomes reasonable. So does that mean I, unless I make Herculean efforts 24/7, can’t lose? Well, maybe it means I do as much as I can do under my present circumstances to not gain any more weight. Sigh!!

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PastaQueen • July 12, 2007 at 8:02 am

Laura – Actually, if I’m understanding the study correctly it just means that if you eat junk food while you are stressed you will gain a lot more weight than someone who is *not* stressed and eating the same amount of junk food. And over the long run, eating a lot of junk food eventually made everyone gain weight.

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Cindy • July 12, 2007 at 8:18 am

Hi PQ,

Though I agree with your post, I also know that there are ways to lose without reducing the stress in your life. When I started this weight loss journey nearly two years ago, I also started graduate school (was I NUTS?!). Additionally, I have a high-stress job that I take very seriously (too seriously, according to some). The stress of changing my body, habits, mind, etc…, along with the incredible stress of being an older student, and working full-time, took its toll, and by last spring, I had developed major anxiety like I’d never experienced before. I had trouble breathing, sleeping, being with people, etc… I was a wreck, totally and utterly. But as I slowly got my anxiety under control, I never lost sight of my weight loss goals and continued losing, albeit at a much slower pace. So I understand the stress/high fat/high sugar connection, but we can’t use it as an excuse. Let that information just be another tool in our tool box. I am making an effort to reduce the stress in my life, but, more importantly, I am trying to give myself better coping skills to deal with the stress that I do face.

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AKS • July 12, 2007 at 10:12 am

Maybe it’s not the stress itself but how you deal with it that can adversely affect weight. For me, I run to relieve stress. Even if I’ve gotten 4 hours of sleep and I’ve been working at my desk for over 10 hours, I’ll make sure I get out there for a run, because that helps me deal with the stress. Afterwards I take a shower and go back to work :)

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spacedcowgirl • July 12, 2007 at 10:52 am

I feel that we have moved culturally in a direction where eating a healthy diet, home cooking, spending more on fresh and organic foods, etc. are all considered desirable. And we are supposed to work out no matter what. So even though it is hard to find the time and discipline to do these things, at least there is a cultural “imperative” that seems to earn you respect and support from others if you do them.

Unfortunately, even though we know perfectly well that it is much healthier to get more sleep and experience less stress in our lives, there is no similar cultural imperative to increase sleep or reduce working hours or stress. The person who works a 60-hour week but also manages to eat healthy and exercise is the one who is revered, even if they’re exercising at midnight and getting 4 hours sleep. People who work less in order to get more sleep or time to de-stress are less respected.

I have never seen anyone suggest changing jobs for this purpose before, which in some respects is pretty radical… but I think it is a very interesting and totally reasonable suggestion, and great food for thought. For some reason people seem willing to try and bend over backwards for their health in every respect except stress reduction. Dieters cut themselves no slack whatsoever when it comes to food and exercise; if they don’t resist every gram of sugar offered to them, or work out even when they’re sick or have a million other things to do, they beat themselves up. But When the recommendation to reduce stress is brought up, the person says “Oh well, I thrive on stress” or “Work is just too crazy” or “I’m a night person.” Things that the same person would probably consider “excuses” if applied to diet or exercise. Note, I’m not saying anybody “should” do anything differently or attacking people’s lifestyles; I also know that there are probably a minority of people who do work better under stress and many more who just don’t have a choice. It’s just that we also seem to feel that some greater good is served by working ourselves to death, which suggests to me that health is not valued by our culture as much as we like to think, or as much as discipline and deprivation at any cost.

Not to mention, employers these days are fond of telling you to “reduce your stress” and “achieve work-life balance” but they don’t seem nearly as willing to cut back on the workload. It’s like the burden is all on you to achieve some zen-like state in the midst of the same old circumstances. If we as a culture were really serious about that stuff, they would put their money where their mouth is.

Unless our cultural thinking shifts to put adequate sleep and stress reduction at the same premium as exercise, healthy diet, and workaholism, nothing will probably change, IMO.

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BrightAngel • July 12, 2007 at 11:00 am

Agree with you again.

In order to eat less food, I had to have less stress. Personally, I had to completely overhaul and downsize my law practice to do it…even after gastric bypass surgery.

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Bree • July 12, 2007 at 11:03 am

Maybe you don’t remember me, but I think I’ve mentioned the horrible situations I’ve endured in my life over the past 2 years including death (2) abandonment/betrayal. Seeing a loved one literally die in front of you slowly and painfully doesn’t leave you. Nothing tops losing my baby, but it’s so hard.

For me it’s situational. Call it bad luck or whateve you wanna call it. I have to deal with it, but I do not fare well under stress. And I’m struggling w/my weight. I’ve gained about 20 lbs after my son was born and throughout this thing called life. I’m to the point of wanting to walk away from my job (office). Dealing w/the public has gotten worse for me. Of course I know that my anxiety problem adds to my stress level and I know it affects my weight and my choices of how I live my life (eating/exercise).

Add to that lack of sleep (also part of my anxiety struggle) and that only adds to the weight battle. Sometimes I feel like giving up. I see no end to the stress in my life. I have joined the gym which I’m happy about.

I guess I’m basically agreeing with that theory and trying to take baby steps to deal w/my own stress. I feel that’s all I can do. Sorry for the rant.

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ML • July 12, 2007 at 11:21 am

I’ve been following your blog for about 6 months now. I started towards my weight loss goal back in January and stumbled on your blog when doing research. I was at 278 and was really concerned about reaching 300. At this point I am at 220 and am really pushing for 200 before my sister’s wedding in August. Reading your blog has been inspiring when I’ve reached low points in the process.

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G.G. • July 12, 2007 at 11:49 am

I’m struggling with this right now and have struggled with the stress/food nexus for most of my life.

There has always been something I can use as an excuse for why I went off track, why I’ve gone off track, why I’m going to go off track. Something major like graduate school (applying to, attending, graduating from and aftermath of), painful breakups, looking for a fulfilling job, making enough money, illnesses, deaths, unremitting physical pain, etc.

But by God, at some point letting my life be controlled by the stress and the excuses has got to stop. The things I’ve listed above aren’t isolated time-stopping events–they’re part of life. So I either have to find a way to keep them from knocking me off the path when they inevitably occur, or I have to make the decision that, for me, the “path” will always be a hamster wheel that expends a lot of energy for a period of time but in reality is a road to nowhere except two steps behind the place I started from.

There’s a creative writing guru (Natalie Goldberg) who talks about getting past all the life static in order to put words on the page–she calls it “monkey mind.”

The challenge for me right now, is how to keep the “monkey mind” crap from knocking me off yet another diet so that it can become a true lifestyle change. And stay that way–because monkey mind doesn’t die–it just comes back crazier than ever.

I don’t have the answers to how to do this for myself yet.

It does seem PQ has found those answers for herself–and I’m so glad she shares her success stories with us (Heaven knows, there are enough examples of the failures out there–my own included!)

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n.b. • July 12, 2007 at 12:00 pm

Fascinating stuff! Rings true from my own experience in stressful situations. I’ve always chalked it up as “I guess I’m a stress eater!” but you know, I’m not sure that’s really true. But I just couldn’t figure out why else I’d be gaining weight at times of particular stress.

Also corroborated by the latest diet book I am reading by Dr. Jana Klauer who even without benefit of citing this particular study (probably it wasn’t out before the book was published), devotes several pages to how de-stressing your life will help your body be able lose weight!

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ann • July 12, 2007 at 12:18 pm

Like so many of your posts, this is so true. During the year and a half of my Dad’s illness and death, I gained 45 pounds – and I was already quite chubby. I crash dieted and lost a bunch of weight, but with a breakup and work stress, I put it right back on when I got tired of strict dieting and exercising.

Now I’m under stress (not nearly as bad as before, of course, but this time it’s totally my fault, which doesn’t help the morale!). One thing that is helping is a certain pride that even when I can’t sleep or turn off the worry and “what is the right thing to do” thought machine, I am sticking to the exercise and eating plan, and haven’t gained any weight. I hope this lasts.

Thanks for hitting so many subjects that touch so many working on weight loss!

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Jenny • July 12, 2007 at 12:24 pm

I was having a hard time losing my last 10 pounds and started boxing – the combination of the cardio AND the stress reducing pounding of a heavy bag helped me over the hurdle. I so agree with you. Stress kills. And as women, we are not encouraged to work it OUT… we keep it in. And then we eat. Or, at least, that’s what I do/did.

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Leora • July 12, 2007 at 12:29 pm

It’s so true that mental health is intrinsically linked to physical health. As soon as there is a shift in your mind, the shift in your body becomes apparent.

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Smissy • July 12, 2007 at 12:29 pm

I really agree with you on this one. I had a stressful job for about two years. I hated going everyday and the only thing I looked forward to was eating – meaning I would go to Dunkin Donuts for a breakfast sandwich every morning, and rotate different lunch places every day. It was the only enjoyment I felt I had at a job where I worked minimum 10 hour days in a very crazy/unhealthy environment. I now have a job, that in comparison, is extremely low stress and gives me a much, much better work/life balance. I’ve lost approximately 35 lbs since I’ve left that job. Yes, I enrolled in weight watchers and it was a very conscious decision, however I truly believe my now calm, low stress lifestyle is a huge factor in my weight loss success.

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Patty • July 12, 2007 at 3:16 pm

I agree with the stress/junk food will totally increase your rate of obesity. Some years ago I was in a really stressful job and the boss from hell and I started eating to combat the stress. Of course, it kinda worked but I ended up gaining a bunch of weight. Now, I am still dealing with getting that said weight off. But now, with lower stress in my life, if is coming off.

I do think that some people can handle high stress and still stay thin or lose but it makes it a lot harder that’s for sure.

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Erin • July 12, 2007 at 5:36 pm

TOTALLY agree. Removing the huge stresses from my life has made a world of difference and allowed me to focus on my health, physically and mentally.

Granted, this isn’t for everyone, but for me, a virtual stress-free life in the areas I can control are vital for me living the life I want. I am in a job I love, with hours that I worship, which means more time for me.

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Zanitta • July 12, 2007 at 9:18 pm

Oh no, does this mean my move from the UK to Japan is going to completely screw me? dammit!

LOL I had forgotten about erotic baked goods!

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Jessica • July 13, 2007 at 12:55 am

I agree things happen in life that can be stressful and we do have to try to learn how to cope, but when it all piles on at once it gets hard to find a place to start the coping process.

In the last 5 months I’ve been dealing with wheter or not my husband will be getting deployed to Kosovo, he’s currently on the substitution list. This means our plans on moving have been put on hold, his looking for a new job put on hold. Both our cars broke down completely within one week of each other. Found out both would’ve needed new engines, so we have been carless for 6 weeks. Thankfully I’m a stay at home mom so we only need to arrange for him to get rides. A good friend died two weeks ago, making 8 friends or relatives in a year and a half that have died. It just seems to be endless and we don’t know how we should move on because in a week he could be gone. No surprise not only have I not lost weight, but I gained six lbs.

I’m thankful my husband, our two kids, and myself are healthy. And I constantly tell myself it could be much worse, but when you’re the one in the middle of all that’s happening that doesn’t always help. Sorry for the lengnthy comment, its been a hard day. Thanks for the vent.

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psychsarah • July 13, 2007 at 10:30 am

I spend much of my day teaching people stress management (I’m in training to be a psychologist) and yet I still struggle with it myself.

I had a “relapse” in terms of weight loss recently (I had been plateaued at a certain weight for over a year and then I gained about 7-8 pounds in about 6 weeks) and only in hindsight could I see that it was so obviously related to a stressful situation at work. Oddly though, I was under a great deal of stress during the year and a half I lost the most weight. Go figure… (I would agree with some other posters that its about learning how to cope with the stress you have (that’s what I tell my patients too!))

I don’t think its unfathomable to suggest a change in job for health reasons. People with high blood pressure sometimes shift to different jobs to prevent further complications. I would say if you change jobs to help you lose/maintain weight, you’re taking preventative measures against high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease (everything that increases in risk with extra weight). As always, thanks to PastaQueen for making this insightful and important point!

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melsky • July 15, 2007 at 6:29 pm

I’m having those stress problems now too – husband is interviewing for jobs in another city and we have given notice on our apartment but don’t know if we will be moving closer to his current work or to the new city. We just went on his interview trip and I ate, ate, ate – between the stress and the exciting new restaurants it was a hard situation. I’m not even going to step on the scale (I don’t weigh myself often anyway) but I’m going back to the gym tomorrow first thing in the morning.

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Wally • July 17, 2007 at 3:42 am

Stress and an unhealthy diet is a bad combination indeed.

It’s true, I’ve notice a lot of people who gain weight which is visible in the abdominal area. Their stressful work and the junk foods they eat are obvious reasons.

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Pat • July 17, 2007 at 8:46 pm

I totally agree. Having two negatives at the same time will surely make its way to our body. Without exercise or balanced diet, noting will counter balance the effect of stress or unbalanced diet.

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Terri • July 19, 2007 at 1:10 am

I think stress is far more serious than unhealthy diet, because stressed people tend to eat most of the time.

We should be aware of these factors all the time.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JennetteFulda.com now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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