Stress Causing People to “Super Size”

It is currently reported that two out of three adults is either overweight or obese, and the numbers continue to climb. As a result, statistics demonstrate that a significant portion of our population is being diagnosed with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. Even more shocking is that we are experiencing these conditions at earlier ages than previously reported. It is not unusual today, to hear about a young person in their 20’s diagnosed with mature onset diabetes, normally developed during middle-age.

On May 7, 2004, a controversial and award-winning movie aimed at exploring the obesity epidemic hit theatres. In “Super Size Me”, a tongue-in-cheek look at the legal, financial and physical costs of our hunger for fast food, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock explores the horrors of school lunch programs, declining health education and physical education classes, food addictions and the extreme measures people take to lose weight. As a centerpiece of the film, Spurlock puts his own body on the line, living on nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days following three rules:

1) Eat only what is available over the counter
2) No supersizing unless offered
3) Consume every item on the menu at least once

In the end, Spurlock has a weight gain of 24 pounds and experiences harrowing visits to the doctor. The issues that are explored in “Super Size Me” beg the question, what has changed in our environment to cause this obesity problem to reach epidemic proportions? Furthermore, what is causing people to overeat as we do?

A groundbreaking study, reported in 2003 by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that between 1977 and 1996, portion sizes for key food groups grew markedly in the United States, not only at fast-food restaurants but also in homes and at conventional restaurants. In particular, portion sizes for salty and sugary foods, essentially, “comfort foods” experienced the most dramatic portion size increases. For example, the USDA’s recommended serving size for a cookie is half an ounce, while the average cookie sold in restaurants was found to be 700% larger. More details please

The by-products of our affluent American society, envied by many around the world, have a definite dark side, our obesity rate, for starters. In a culture where more is better and disposable income is abundant, when it comes to eating we have developed a “more food, more conveniently and more often” attitude.

Stress: A Pre-Cursor to Obesity

Certainly, no one forces us to eat more than our body needs, so what is driving this “hunger” for more? Over the last two decades, almost proportionally to the dramatic increase of food consumed and chronic disease diagnoses, the amount of stress in our society and on each of us individually has increased significantly. Stress is the term medical researcher Hans Selye, M.D., PhD, gave to the experience our bodies go through when we have to adjust or adapt to the various changes our bodies experience during the course of the day. While many of us think of stress in relationship to emotional states, many other factors can exert an equally detrimental effect on our bodies as well. When we do not get enough sleep or rest, work or exercise too much, nutritional status, have an infection, have allergies, injuries or trauma, undergo dental or surgical procedures, have emotional upsets, or deal with any aspect of reproductive function such a pregnancy, menopause, etc., our bodies must chemically and neurologically adapt in order to survive. Part of this adaptation process relies heavily on the nutrition that is available for the kidney’s adrenal glands to produce the adaptive hormones. It is often this aspect of stress that can lead to overeating, and what’s more, overeating the types of foods that cause unhealthy weight gain.

How it works

Thanks to the work of M.I.T. Professor Judith Wurtman, Ph.D. and others we now understand the significant role that a neurotransmitter or “chemical messenger” called Serotonin plays in producing our cravings for complex carbohydrates and sugars, two of the largest contributors to unhealthy weight gain. Serotonin along with other neurotransmitters, are produced by our bodies as “feel good” hormones. Under stress, we do not have enough of these hormones and we become motivated to “self-sooth” by behaviors that lead to the increase of Serotonin. Overeating of carbohydrate and fatty-rich foods or “comfort foods” such as cookies, ice cream, etc. significantly increases these hormones. Many addictions such as smoking, alcohol, and drugs are also attempts to self-sooth and increase Serotonin, but no other addictive or unhealthy behavior is as socially acceptable and as easily available as over eating. We can do it anywhere, anytime, alone or with company. It is no wonder we have such a love affair with eating.

In addition, our bodies need for certain nutrients, specifically protein, Vitamins A, C, and E, unsaturated fatty acids, cholesterol, and minerals, skyrocket when we are “adapting” under stress. Often, if we do not stop the stress cycle or do not appropriately supplement these nutrients, we can turn to overeating to satisfy the body’s demands for the fuel it needs to keep dealing with the stress we are experiencing.

For a period of time, foods that comfort, sooth or supplement can make us feel calmer until our level of Serotonin drops again or until we become more exhausted and need to feed ourselves, yet again. Then, we start the cycle all over and consume more carbohydrate and fatty rich foods until we feel better. This is the cycle of self-medication or self-soothing practiced in homes, offices, restaurants, automobiles and yes, even bathrooms across America. The long-term effect of such behaviors, apart from obesity and escalating chronic diseases, is that our nervous systems are being hyper-stimulated. Anxiety, exhaustion, depression, overeating and insomnia are just a few of the symptoms we experience when our nervous systems are working on overload.

As a result, it is no wonder that within the last year, low-carbohydrate diets have proven effective for so many people. Approximately 20% of Americans or 20 million people are currently on a low-carb diet. For many of us, our stress level is a major factor in the over consumption of carbohydrates, therefore reducing or eating normal amounts of carbohydrates is spawning weight loss. The real issue, however, is how long can we reduce are carbohydrate loading without reducing our stress levels and the behaviors that create elevated stress in the first place?

Causes of Stress

Prior to the early 1970’s, the majority of family units were structured as a one wage earner household where the male worked and the female stayed at home, taking care of the house and family. Driven largely by social and socio-economic factors, all of that has changed. Now, the overwhelming majority of families include both parents working and we find ourselves on a treadmill of more work, more responsibilities, more demands and non-stop scheduling that has many of us in a state of physical and, at times, emotional exhaustion.

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