Why anxiety can cause overweight, according to several scientific studies

Why anxiety can cause overweight

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity and overweight are two of the greatest health problems facing the world’s population today. They are defined as an abnormal or excessive accumulation of fat that can seriously damage health.

In other words, the problem of overweight and obesity is that they are two of the most important risk factors for the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, locomotor system disorders and some cancers.

Fortunately we have been able to detect many of the causes, which in the long term may lead to a reduction in their prevalence. One of the risk factors for weight gain, which has been most discussed in recent years, is anxiety.

Anxiety and stress: are they the same?

Stress and anxiety are words that we sometimes use as synonyms because both refer to psychological and physiological states that alter our mood and our activity in general.

Stress can have a positive side (the term in English for this is “eustress”, or eustrés in Spanish) that helps us to respond to the demands of the environment, and to flee or adapt according to the situation. Thus, stress is the broad physiological state, which can have different manifestations and its presence can vary on a regular basis.

But when stress is a constant state, which is not serving us to respond adequately to external demands, and begins to give us the feeling of being out of control, then it may be becoming a pathological picture closer to anxiety.

Depending on the level at which it occurs, anxiety is characterized by a series of psychological and physiological experiences such as palpitations, tachycardia, sweating, insomnia , feeling of shortness of breath, constant movements, lack of concentration, anguish.

Anxiety is a more specific picture than stress and is accompanied by significant changes at the physiological level, such as the secretion of corticosteroid hormones at very high levels and for a long time, which in turn makes our body and our mood not adaptive, but the opposite.

Although their causes are very varied, some of the most common are lifestyles related to work or academic conditions, or more personal experiences that cause vulnerability, such as abuse, harassment, feelings of uncertainty, the loss of a loved one, among others.

Why can anxiety cause overweight?

The main cause of overweight and obesity is the increased intake of high calorie foods that are rich in fat . In turn, this increase can occur due to many factors, for example, reduced physical activity, food processing and distribution, unbalanced diets or the lack of policies that support the health sector.

Apart from the above, some recent research has suggested that anxiety is another risk factor for the development of overweight and obesity, mainly for the following reason: when we feel anxious we eat more (and worse).

When we find ourselves in situations that cause us anxiety, a whole series of chemical changes occur in our brain. In these moments, something that produces a sensation of calm and satisfaction are the foods that have a greater caloric concentration, that are also less satiating, reason why they generate the necessity to us to eat in great amounts.

In addition, constant stress and anxiety often cause insomnia, which makes us need to eat more food every day, usually with a high caloric content.

Specifically, excessive sugar consumption activates the brain system in charge of metabolizing glucocorticoids, which are the hormones that metabolize carbohydrates, and which are also activated in response to stress situations, causing a feeling of euphoria. The latter is adaptive and important for maintaining homeostasis at moderate levels of secretion, but excess can be problematic.

Some tips to reduce anxiety

Anxiety, in addition to being related to obesity, is related to sedentariness and the high consumption of psychoactive substances such as alcohol or tobacco , which in turn, causes greater overweight and obesity. In addition, both overweight and anxiety are two problems that affect children significantly.

The good news is that some research suggests that a stable reduction in anxiety states does indeed favour a decrease in the body mass index. That’s why it’s important to know some ways to avoid it.

Because the causes are quite unspecific, some of the more general recommendations we can make are based on habit modification; an issue that may seem quite complicated, but can also be simple if properly followed up.

1. Detect moments when we feel stressed or anxious

Stress and anxiety can be caused by many different situations, for example, some conflict that we have not been able to talk about or solve at work, at school, with our partner, with friends or with our family; it can also happen that they have no clear cause, or that there is a difficulty in setting limits for others.

In the beginning it is important to have clues about the situations that may be causing us constant stress, so that it is possible to modify them or to change our positions and decisions before them.

2. Search for alternatives

Something we must be clear about is that habits do not change from one day to the next, just as anxiety does not disappear overnight, so it is important to learn to find relaxation through more functional things than excessive calorie intake.

For example, learning to disconnect and rest, or at the level of interpersonal relations trying to put limits on others and on our own demands. Likewise and according to our interests we can choose to do physical exercise, go for a walk, visit someone, read a good book, have a cup of tea, watch a movie…

3. Establish routines that incorporate healthy habits and enjoyable experiences

It is about trying to make sure that our day to day is composed of some basic things like having a balanced diet, in sufficient quantity and as natural and fresh as possible; doing moderate exercise, having moments of rest, sharing with our peers, and trying to do activities that produce motivation and personal satisfaction, which can be from a hobby to maintaining long term professional aspirations.

In any case, it is also important to ask for specialized help if we need it. A visit to a psychologist, psychiatrist or neurologist can also be very helpful in reducing our anxiety levels and improving our response to stressful situations.

Bibliographic references:

  • World Health Organization. (2017). Obesity and overweight. Recovered April 25, 2018. Available at http://www.who.int/es/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight
  • Tryon, M., Stanhope, K., Epe, E. et al. (2015). Excessive Sugar Consumption May Be a Difficult Habit to Break: A View From the Brain and Body. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 100(6): 2239-2247.
  • González-Ramírez, T., Monica, G. & Pompa-Guajardo, E. (2011). Decrease of anxiety and body mass index in overweight and obese children after a multidisciplinary treatment. Anxiety and Stress, 17(2/3): 211-219.
  • Strine, T., Mokdad, A., Dube, S. et. al (2008). The association of depression and anxiety with obesity and unhealthy behaviors among community-dwelling US adults. General Hospital Psychiatry. 30(2): 127-137
  • Tapia, A. (2006). Anxiety, an important factor to consider for the adequate diagnosis and treatment of patients with overweight and obesity Revista Chilena de Nutrición, 33(2): 325-357.

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