Although some instances of weight gain and obesity are caused by genetics, more and more research is pointing to the fact that stress plays a big role in weight gain, as many will turn to food for comfort in times of stress. Currently, nearly two-thirds of adults and one-quarter of children and adolescents in Australia are overweight or obese, with that proportion continuing to rise (1). Drug research has not yet been able to produce a solution that allows people to lose weight and keep it off long term. Traditional approaches like diet and exercise can be effective in the short term, however, most people inevitably regain the weight (2).
The solution to weight loss is unlikely to be presented in pill format in the near future. Instead, the solution will be to begin changing the brain, especially the primitive areas of the brain (the “emotional brain” or the mammalian and reptilian brain) (3). These are the areas of the brain that control stress and our stress-fuelled emotions, thoughts, and behaviours (3). These circuits have the potential to be re-wired in humans. As such, by addressing the root-cause of stress-related problems, we have the chance to change them.
The link between stress and obesity has been previously extensively researched (4). The emotional brain acts as the command centre for weight and common excesses. It includes emotions such as fear, reward and starvation centres (3). When that part of the brain is stressed, all three centres promote relying on food as a crutch, leading to overeating, and thus, weight gain. In such a situation, individuals have a strong drive to do what they know they shouldn’t in order to relieve that stress – overeat! This is because the stress is increasing the reward value of food, which causes an increase in cravings for carbohydrates and decreases the metabolic rate, almost ensuring weight gain. This is because our thinking brain goes offline and the extremes of our emotional brain call the shots (3).
The initial step to taking back control of one’s weight is learning to de-stress the emotional brain. Laurel Mellin (Associate Clinical Professor of Family & Community Medicine and Paediatrics, University of California, San Francisco) and colleagues have recently designed a program to assist with identifying stress levels and “spiralling up” into a state of well-being. The techniques involve checking in with oneself to identify where the feelings of stress are coming from, and convincing yourself that you cannot get your safety from food, and learning instead to get safety from connecting to yourself, and watching those circuits change over time. The point is to ensure that the user reaches for a cognitive tool rather than reaching for food in times of stress, thus over time, changing those brain circuits. The drive to overeat eventually fades so participants are more resilient to new stresses and less likely to gain back the weight they have lost (3).
1. A picture of overweight and obesity in Australia, Table of contents [Internet]. A picture of overweight and obesity in Australia. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; 2017 [cited 2018May16]. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/overweight-obesity/a-picture-of-overweight-and-obesity-in-australia/...
2. Johansson K, Neovius M, Hemmingsson E. Effects of anti-obesity drugs, diet, and exercise on weight-loss maintenance after a very-low-calorie diet or low-calorie diet: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2018May16];99(1):14–23. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3862452/
3. Mellin L, The Weight Loss 'Secret' That No One Is Telling You [Internet]. IFLScience. IFLScience; 2018 [cited 2018May16]. Available from: http://www.iflscience.com/brain/want-lose-weight-train-brain-not-body/all/
4. Yau, Y. H. C., & Potenza, M. N. (2013). Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinologica, 38(3), 255–267.