Timi Gustafson, R.D.

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Stress and Anxiety Among the Leading Causes of Obesity, Studies Find

September 20th, 2013 at Fri, 20th, 2013 at 11:21 am by timigustafson

Being well fed was once a sign of wealth, but obesity is now most prevalent among poor people. Surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a close connection between obesity rates and socioeconomic status in American adults. Particularly women at low income and education levels are at a high risk of developing weight problems at some time in their lives.

While most studies on the subject have been focusing mainly on the economic aspects of food-buying and eating habits of low-income earners – e.g. poor people buy food that’s bad for their health because it’s cheap and calorie-dense – more attention is now being paid to psychological responses to economical insecurity and how it can lead to dysfunctional behavior such as overeating and food addiction.

One particular study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), found that obesity may indeed be associated with mood and anxiety disorders, although the relationship can be complex and hard to pinpoint. Obesity may also be connected with other psychological disturbances such as depression, bipolar disorder and panic disorder, the study concluded.

Undoubtedly, economical hardship is one of the most stress-producing situations anybody can be exposed to. Researchers at the University of Manitoba, Canada, found that participants in a study who lived near or below the poverty line were at a substantially higher risk of developing anxiety disorders compared to their financially more secure counterparts.

Stress and anxiety are also well known as triggers of food cravings, especially for so-called “comfort foods.” Tests with lab rats have shown that stress increases the release of “endogenous opioids” in the brain, neurotransmitters that resemble opiates with similar addictive properties. They stimulate cravings for foods that can make you feel good in an instant, especially for those tasting sweet, salty and fatty that are so richly present in our Western diet.

Stress and anxiety-evoking experiences, of course, are not limited to acute financial difficulties. Our busy lives are filled with potential stressors in many ways. The effects are all the same, even when your daily challenges are more manageable. It is at times when you are not stressed to the hilt that you should put a plan in place that allows you to resist temptations when the going gets tough again.

Since food cravings in response to stress will inevitable occur, whether you fight them or not, it seems more helpful to keep food items around that are healthy and non-fattening, like fruits and vegetables, and to stay away from the chips and candy you may prefer at the moment but will cause you regrets later on.

What you don’t want to do is make matters worse either by artificially energizing your body with caffeine and sugar or by numbing yourself with alcohol or junk food. These are actually “stress-feeders,” even if they seem to bring contemporary relief.

If you need a boost or just something to make you feel better or let you cope more effectively, look for healthy “stress-busters.” Complex carbohydrates found in whole-grain breads, cereals and pastas, as well as oatmeal are good choices and nutritionally far superior to the simple versions you get from white breads and pastries. Carbohydrates help the brain produce serotonin, a chemical that relaxes you. Fresh fruits provide many vitamins and help strengthen the immune system, which is especially important when you are under heightened pressure. Almost all vegetables, cooked or raw, are beneficial for your nutritional health, and should be part of your daily diet, no matter what your state of mind is.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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