Stress and Body Shape -- with Laurel Mellin, MA, RD and Elissa Epel, PhD

WebMD Live Events Transcript; Event Date: Thursday, October 28, 2004

By Elissa Epel, PhD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Live Events Transcript

We all know that a frazzled mind can conjure cravings for comfort food in some and kill the appetite in others. And now we hear that stress can affect the amount of fat we produce and the shape we are in. We discussed all of this, plus how to get off the food/stress carousel, with Elissa Epel, PhD, and Laurel Mellin, MA, RD, the author of The Solution: 6 Winning Ways to Permanent Weight Loss, on Oct. 28, 2004.

If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

MODERATOR: What is it about being stressed that changes our approach to food?

EPEL: Stress causes some people to eat more, some to eat less. Stress really disrupts our homeostasis. The same neural networks that regulate appetite and satiety also regulate the stress response.

So it makes sense that when we're stressed, we're affecting the very same neural substrates that affect eating. What's complicated is that we don't exactly know how those neurotransmitters and neural networks are affected for individuals. They are probably affected differently depending on the type of stress, and how mild or severe it is.

We're mostly going to focus on stress eating, because this is the biggest clinical problem -- it can be called nonhomeostatic eating, eating when we don't need the calories. There are many reasons for this, and it is imperative we understand the triggers and how to control this eating, because nonhomeostatic eating is at the core of today's eating epidemic.

The biggest reason for overeating is simply the environment. We're surrounded by a toxic food environment, particularly high-fat, sweet food. Our brains are wired to respond to this type of food by overeating it and then craving more. There are other reasons for nonhomeostatic eating such as:

  • Overly restrained dieting, which can backfire
  • Eating in response to emotions, rather than hunger

MEMBER QUESTION: I eat when I am stressed. I know I am doing it when I do it, but it calms me down. Then I gain weight and it causes me more stress. It's a vicious cycle!

ELLIN: It is sad, because it is a vicious cycle. It's not that you're giving excuses for what you're doing; it's real. Eating is soothing and pleasurable, and we're apt to reach for food when we're out of homeostasis. This nonhomeostasis happens when we're in a state called "below the line."

That's when our "feeling brain" is out of emotional balance, out of relationship intimacy, disconnected spiritually, and the drives to go to excess -- including increased appetite for food -- ramp up. In contrast, when we're "above the line," when our feeling brain is in homeostasis, there are many gratifiers, we feel balanced, our relationships are more connected, and the drive to overeat and go to excess is lower, it's easier to push away from the table and stay with a diet. We eat less because we want less.

So an important answer to weight problems is not focus on forcing yourself to overly restrict food, but to notice whether you're in homeostasis, above the line, or out of homeostasis, below the line.

If you're below the line, do not focus on forcing yourself not to eat that extra cookie. Instead focus on moving above the line. In that state the desire for the cookie fades. You can use a range of tools, such as:

  • Relaxation
  • Checking your feelings and needs
  • Going on a walk
  • Being out in nature
  • Enjoying music
  • Talking with a friend

The focus should not be on overrestricting your diet but on achieving homeostasis.

EPEL: You may feel the stress eating is making you feel better in the short run, but in the long run it's causing you misery because of weight gain. There is actually a biological basis to the stress reduction effect you are experiencing.

Let me tell you what we know about rats when they're stressed. Rats start preferring sweet and high-fat food, and the ones who have access to this comforting food actually experience stress reduction in terms of their hormonal responses.

Research by Dallman and Pecoraro at UCSF show that stressed rats that get comfort food have a down regulation of their stress response system. Mainly cortisol is lowered; stress responsivity is decreased in the stressed rats that get comfort food. But, unfortunately, there is a physical price to pay. These rats lose weight overall, but have more abdominal fat compared with peripheral fat.

MEMBER QUESTION: Why do we crave sweets and not a nice, big salad? Chocolate versus vegetable -- chocolate wins every time!

EPEL: Absolutely. The biological basis to this is rooted in what triggers our pleasure response in the brain.