The Effects of Chronic Stress to Promote Weight Gain and Obesity

Posted by Jerry Coy on

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By Jerry Coy


Stress is a physiological response to external demands on the mind and body. Acute stress is a response to an immediate threat or demand. Chronic stress can be caused by emotional or mental demands. Part of the physiological response can include the invocation of the fight of flight mechanism. The sympathetic nervous system is activated along with stress hormones like cortisol. These responses can cause one to over-eat while seeking “comfort” foods (Dallman, 2010).  Excessive chronic stress then can lead to obesity if not properly managed.

Body of Research

Psychological stress promotes high fat diets as a defense mechanism. An article (Grossniklaus et al., n.d.) about a cross-sectional study into abdominal obesity and adipose tissue as a result of high stress. A combination of obesity and high stress can lead to cardiovascular disease. A study with mice show that a high fat diet helps defend against the high demands of social stress (Finger, Dinan, & Cryan, 2011).  

An article featured in the Journal BMC Public Health studies a correlation of BMI and social-demographic, psycho-social factors, life events, moods, and perceived stress (Stewart-Knox et al., 2012).  An understanding of this correlation can help lead to prevention and treatment of obesity.

University students are notoriously known for high stress. They are also well known for poor dietary choices. A phenomenon known as “freshman 15” is referring to the average of 15 pounds a college student gains during the first year. A study in Nutritional Journal researches the eating habits of Lebanese university students demonstrates this phenomenon (Yahia, Achkar, Abdallah, & Rizk, 2008). 


Enough research shows evidence of a link between stress and obesity. Management of stress can prevent or treat obesity


Dallman, M. F. (2010). Stress-induced obesity and the emotional nervous system. Trends in endocrinology and metabolism: TEM21(3), 159–65. doi:10.1016/j.tem.2009.10.004

Finger, B. C., Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2011). High-fat diet selectively protects against the effects of chronic social stress in the mouse. Neuroscience192, 351–60. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2011.06.072

Grossniklaus, D. A., Dunbar, S. B., Tohill, B. C., Gary, R., Higgins, M. K., & Frediani, J. (n.d.). Psychological factors are important correlates of dietary pattern in overweight adults. The Journal of cardiovascular nursing,25(6), 450–60. doi:10.1097/JCN.0b013e3181d25433

Stewart-Knox, B., Duffy, M., Bunting, B., Parr, H., de Almeida, M. D., & Gibney, M. (2012). Associations between obesity (BMI and waist circumference) and socio-demographic factors, physical activity, dietary habits, life events, resilience, mood, perceived stress and hopelessness in healthy older Europeans. BMC public health,12(1), 424. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-424

Yahia, N., Achkar, A., Abdallah, A., & Rizk, S. (2008). Eating habits and obesity among Lebanese university students. Nutrition Journal7(1), 32. Retrieved from


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