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Why anxiety can cause overweight, according to several scientific studies

Why anxiety can cause overweight, according to several scientific studies

June 13, 2024

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

That is, the problem of overweight and obesity is that they are two of the most important risk factors for the development of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and some cancers.

Fortunately we have been able to detect many of the causes, which in the long term can lead us to reduce its prevalence. One of the risk factors for weight gain, which has been the 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 they both refer to psychological and physiological states that alter our mood and our activity in general.

Stress can have a positive face (the term in English for this is "eustress", or eustress in Spanish) that helps us to be able 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 may have different manifestations and its presence may vary on a regular basis.

But when stress is a constant state, which is not serving us to adequately respond to external demands, and begins to give us the feeling of being out of control, then it may be turning into 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 important 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 state of mind Do not be adaptive, but the opposite.

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


Why can anxiety cause overweight?

The main cause of overweight and obesity is the increase in the intake of high-calorie foods that are rich in fat . In turn, this increase can occur due to many factors, for example, due to 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 of the risk factors 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 provoke anxiety, a whole series of chemical changes take place in our brain. In these moments, something that produces a sensation of calm and satisfaction are the foods that have a higher caloric concentration, which are also less satiating, which is why they generate the need to eat in large quantities.

In addition, constant stress and anxiety often cause insomnia, which means that in the day to day we have the need to eat a greater amount of food, usually also with high caloric content.

Specifically, the excessive consumption of sugar activates the brain system responsible for 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 to maintain homeostasis at moderate levels of secretion, but in excess it can be problematic.

Some tips to reduce anxiety

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

The good news is that some research suggests that effectively, a stable reduction in anxiety states favors the decrease in body mass index. For that reason it is important to know some ways to avoid it.

Because the causes are quite nonspecific, some of the most general recommendations we can make are based on habit modification; question that may seem quite complicated, but that can also be simple if it has an adequate follow-up.

1. Detect the moments in which we feel stressed or anxious

Stress and anxiety can be caused by very different situations, for example, some conflict that we have not been able to talk about or solve at work, at school, with a partner, with friends or with the family; It can also happen that they do not have a clear cause, or that there is a difficulty in setting limits to 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 modify our positions and decisions before them.

2. Find alternatives

Something that we must have clear is that habits do not change from one day to another, just as anxiety does not disappear overnight, which is important to learn to find relaxation through more functional things than excessive intake of calories.

For example, learning to disconnect and rest, or at the level of interpersonal relationships, try to set limits to others and to our own demands. Also and according to our interests we can choose to exercise, go for a walk, visit someone, read a good book, have a tea, watch a movie ...

3. Establish routines that incorporate healthy habits and pleasant experiences

It is about making 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; moderate exercise, have moments of rest, share with our peers, and try to do activities that produce motivation and personal satisfaction, which can be from a hobby to maintain 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 useful to reduce our levels of anxiety and improve our response to stressful situations.

Bibliographic references:

  • World Health Organization. (2017). Obesity and overweight. Retrieved April 25, 2018. Available at //www.who.int/en/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 overweight and obese patients. Chilean Magazine of Nutrition, 33 (2): 325-357.
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