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Stress could trigger excess weight gain

Researchers say following a healthy diet during times of stress is crucial

Photo (c) Vadym Petrochenko - Getty Images
Stress can creep up at the most inopportune moments, and it can affect everything from how well we sleep to what and how often we eat.

In a recent study, researchers posited that following a healthy diet during times of stress is crucial for consumers to avoid excess weight gain. According to the study, consuming fattening foods while stressed can add more pounds than usual.

“This study indicates that we may have to be much more conscious about what we’re eating when we’re stressed, to avoid a faster development of obesity,” said researcher Herbert Herzog.

What causes the weight gain?

The researchers used mice as their test subjects to determine how the body reacts differently to high-calorie food during times of extreme stress.

In studying two critical parts of the mice’s brains -- the hypothalamus, which controls how much we eat, and the amygdala, which controls how we respond to things emotionally -- the researchers found that a molecule known as NPY is the driving force behind stress weight gain.

“We discovered that when we switched off the production of NPY in the amygdala weight gain was reduced,” said researcher Dr. Kenny Chi Kin Ip. “Without NPY, the weight gain on a high-fat diet with stress was the same as weight gain in the stress-free environment. This shows a clear link between stress, obesity, and NPY.”

The next part of the study involved figuring out why NPY was increasing weight gain when stressed. In further tests on the mice, the researchers learned that insulin production is manipulated when cells produce NPY molecules.

In times of low stress, insulin indicates to the brain when it’s time to stop eating; however, insulin levels are raised during stressful periods, and a fattening diet during these times increases insulin production tenfold.

This is particularly important because the researchers found that if this trend happens consistently, weight gain can become persistent.

“Our findings revealed a vicious cycle, where chronic, high insulin levels driven by stress and a high-calorie diet promoted more and more eating,” said Herzog. “This really reinforced the idea that while it’s bad to eat junk food, eating high-calorie foods under stress is a double whammy that drives obesity.”

Managing stress

The researchers hope that these findings resonate with consumers, as stress can oftentimes be chronic, and the effects can go beyond what many people assume. Recent studies have shown that finding a work-life balance can be stressful, while parents’ stress levels are often felt by their kids.

However, particularly for parents and kids, having a strong relationship can help children learn to cope with stress as they mature into adulthood.

Stress can also cause any number of health issues, as researchers recently found that chronic stress disorders are linked to a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

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