More Stress, More Pounds?

Mental stress linked to obesity and weight gain behavior in socioeconomically disadvantaged women

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Past research has suggested that people from poorer backgrounds may have an increased risk of being obese. As researchers dive deeper into this relationship, they are finding that stress may play a role.

A recent study looked at the connection between mental stress and weight gain in economically disadvantaged women.

The researchers found that high levels of perceived stress in economically disadvantaged women was associated with weight gain and an increased likelihood of becoming obese. The findings also showed that stress was associated with behaviors linked to weight gain, including less physical activity, more time watching TV and eating more fast food.

The authors of this study concluded that higher stress levels can lead to an increased risk of obesity in economically disadvantaged women. The authors suggested that intervention strategies to help women cope with high stress should be developed.

"Discuss strategies for dealing with stress with a doctor."

This study was conducted at the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences of Deakin University in Victoria, Australia. The lead author was Kylie Ball, PhD, Senior Research Fellow of physical activity, nutrition and obesity in the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research.

The researchers used participant data from a previous study called the Resilience for Eating and Activity Despite Inequality (READI) study. The study used data initially collected in 2007-2008 and follow-up data collected in 2010-2011.

The study surveyed 1,382 women who were randomly selected from 40 rural neighborhoods and 40 urban neighborhoods from the most economically disadvantaged area of Victoria, Australia.

These participants self-reported their sociodemographic characteristics (age, level of education, employment, number of dependent children, smoking status, etc.), height and weight, physical activity and typical time spent sitting, food habits and stress. Stress was measured using the 4-item Perceived Stress Scale (PSS.)

The PSS scale measures stress by asking participants to report how in control they feel over various situations in their lives. It has four questions, each scaled 0 to 4. The scores of each question are summed to get an overall stress score of 0 to 16, with a score of 0 indicating no stress, and a score of 16 indicating the most stress.

The PSS is not meant to diagnose stress or any other condition, and there are no cut-offs. The PSS only makes comparisons between people in a certain sample.

In this study, 52 percent of the women were of healthy weight, 27 percent were overweight and 21 percent were obese at initial data collection. At the three-year follow-up, 47 percent were of a healthy weight, 30 percent were overweight and 24 percent were obese.

The researchers found that for every one-unit increase in stress, the women were 6 percent more likely to be overweight and 13 percent more likely to be obese. The women also were 7 percent more likely to eat fast food one or more times per week.

The findings also showed that the women had a lower likelihood of engaging in medium (53 minutes to four hours per week) or high (more than five hours per week) physical activity if they were more stressed.

In addition, the researchers found that the women were 11 percent more likely to become obese and 8 percent more likely to start eating fast food one or more times per week at the three-year period than at the beginning of the study. The findings also showed that the women were 7 percent more likely to start watching television for 14 to 21 hours per week during the READI study period.

The results of this study are consistent with prior study data on stress and weight. The authors believe that more research is needed to fully understand the underlying reasons between these connections.

The authors noted a few limitations of their study.

First, the data was self-reported and could not be verified by the authors. Second, out of 11,940 women initially invited to participate in the READI study, only 1,382 women were actually included in the study because many did not respond, withdrew or did not qualify anymore at the follow-up.

This study was published in the September edition of BMC Public Health.

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and Deakin University provided funding.

Review Date: 
September 18, 2013
Last Updated:
September 21, 2013