A new study at the University College London has linked long-term chronic stress to higher rates of obesity, suggesting that over several months stress can cause increased food consumption and lead to people gaining weight and being more prone to obesity.
Over a four-year period, the research team studied over 2,500 male and female adults over the age of 53. To find their results, the team studied cortisol levels, a hormone involved in our body’s stress regulation, most commonly linked with the ‘fight-or-flight’ system.
The study, which was published in Obesity, found that over several months, people who had higher levels of cortisol in their body were more likely to be overweight or obese. More specifically, higher levels of cortisol was associated with larger waist circumferences and a higher body mass index (BMI), a measurement of body fat in relation to weight. Highest cortisol levels were found in individuals with obesity (BMI > 30)>
Dr. Sarah Jackson, principal investigator and lead author of the study explains,
“These results provide consistent evidence that chronic stress is associated with higher levels of obesity. People who had higher cortisol levels also tended to have larger waist measurements, which is important because carrying excess fat around the abdomen is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and premature death.”
Previous research has inferred that ‘comfort eating’ or reward-driven overeating may be at play, with people tending to eat highly caloric foods high in sugar, fat, and salt during times of stress. Other research has also shown that cortisol regulates fat metabolism, and higher levels of cortisol may negatively impact how fat is stored in the body.