Obesity rates have risen over the years; however, rates have nearly doubled over the last two years, and it seems safe to say, that is due to pandemic stress. Stress overall is a huge contributor to obesity. In addition, anxiety as well as depression are both connected but not exactly sure which comes first, the mental angst or the obesity. Either way, with obesity rates on the rise at such drastic rates, there is no better time than the present to manage your obesity with this 2-prong approach.

Just over 20 years ago, none of the United States had an adult obesity rate above 25%. Due to the pandemic, job loss, change in eating habits, lack of physical activity and much higher rates of food insecurity (not enough money or resources to get adequate food), obesity rates have skyrocketed. Now there are at least 16 states with obesity rates of 35% or higher.

The connection between stress and obesity.

There is a strong correlation between high stress and change in eating habits. There are those that seem to lose their appetite when stressed. However, eventually the stress hormone, cortisol, is released which leads to increased cravings for foods and in particular, foods that provide comfort such as foods high in sugar and fat.

Turning to food for comfort or emotional soothing comes into play. According to Fatima Cody Stanford, a Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School obesity medicine physician and scientist, says that cravings change with stress. Cortisol increases appetite and ghrelin, the “hunger hormone” gets triggered as well.

According to an APA survey, 1 in 4 Americans rate their stress at an 8 or higher on a 10-point scale. With this level of persistent stress, it’s no wonder that weight gain and obesity is on the rise. It’s also not a secret that comfort foods do make you feel better, at least temporarily. There is no doubt these foods taste very good! The hard part is this temporary relief of stress reinforces the negative behavior of using food to comfort and avoid the stress. The cycle continues.

Stress doesn’t only lead to higher cravings but poor sleep as well.

It’s not just higher fat and sugary food that is to blame. High stress also negatively impacts sleep. When you’re not getting enough sleep, you may not have the energy for exercise. Feeling lethargic and unmotivated continues this downward spiral. The lack of motivation and fatigue causing you to feel “lazy” or critical of yourself feeds right into depression. This leads to more stress and therefore more turning to food for comfort.

Stress is here to stay.

Stress is reality in today’s world. There is no way of avoiding it. You may be confused however, that what you think you need is food to manage the stress, when, your body could be craving much deeper and more effective emotional care and nurturance. Because food has been the go-to comfort, you may now be on auto pilot. You can relearn and notice what your body really wants and needs instead of assuming your stress is always triggering a hunger for food. It could be triggering a hunger for self-love. For more on how to feed and nurture yourself in a healthy way, check out this article.

Anxiety, depression, stress and obesity.

As mentioned earlier, it’s not quite clear which comes first, your anxiety/depression or obesity. Some start with anxiety and try to manage it with food. Others start with obesity and feel so horrible about themselves, feeling judged and isolated, that the anxiety/depression could be a result. Either way, obesity has been found to have a 25% increased link to anxiety and depression.

With this knowledge, it’s so important to know how to intervene to have the best success possible. Let’s now dive into how to manage your obesity with this 2-prong approach.

  • Engage in a strong stress management practice. It may be hard to start at first, so start slow and build as you feel ready. One step at a time will eventually get you where you want to be.
    1. Start a meditation practice – download a meditation app on your phone and start with a 5-minute guided meditation per day
    2. Reach out to trusted friend or family member to share your feelings
    3. Seek professional help
    4. Engage in a physical outlet of some sort. This can be walking, swimming, yoga. Any physical outlet will help manage your stress
  • Learn and practice mindful eating. This shift in your relationship with food has been studied and found to show significant weight loss. The best part is that you do not have to feel deprived or hungry!
    1. Develop awareness around your hunger and fulness
    2. Connect to all 5 senses to gauge satiation with food
    3. Remove judgement from food
    4. Incorporate self-care and enjoyable activates other than eating

This 2-prong approach changes your relationship with food and how you manage your emotional needs, especially as it relates to your daily stress. Small but mighty changes will not only decrease your stress but will decrease your weight. However, you cannot attempt weight loss that is sustained over time without managing both your stress and your relationship with food. Both must be attended to. Start slowly and be patient. You didn’t get to where you are in a day, and it will take time and gentle care to get you where you want to be.

Lesley Goth, Psyd is a sustainable weight loss coach. She teaches exhausted, frustrated, overweight women who struggle with emotional eating and self-loathing, learn how to completely transform their relationship with food and their body. For more information on how you can start your sustainable weight loss journey today, learn more here.