Darren used to be slim and handsome when he was in his 20s. Then life started taking toll on his health. He started a job and in next few years he got married. With time, he realized he was gaining weight. By the time he reached his 40s he surpassed 100 kgs. He was 5 1/2 feet tall.
Now he was really alarmed, and he decided to charge. He started working out in gym regularly. He started controlling his diet. But despite all efforts, he was finding it really tough to control his weight gain.
What should Darren do to lose weight? He was dieting hard. He was working out every day. What was he missing?
Let’s try answer this.
Why we gain weight
If you have read my earlier posts, you would have understood that inflammation is the key reason for all the diseases we get with age. Inflammation results from each and every process that takes place in our body. It is inevitable. It’s like friction generated in the gear- box and brakes and engine whenever you drive your car. If you drive car, friction is inevitable. Similarly, if you breathe inflammation will happen; if you eat inflammation will happen; if you move inflammation will happen; even if you think inflammation will happen!
Inflammation is like fire. Whenever it happens, it burns and damages our cellular components and systems. Ofcourse, we have repair mechanisms. But when level of inflammation goes higher than the repair capacity, we start accumulating unrepaired damages. Over a period of time these unrepaired damages keep accumulating, eventually resulting in diseases such as diabetes mellitus, hypertension, heart diseases etc.
Weight gain actually is a defense mechanism adopted by our body to reduce the impact of these accumulating unrepaired damages. The biological logic is that if we reduce the pace at which inflammation is generated, our repair mechanisms we might be able to reduce the extent of new damages and repair existing damages. Obesity slows down body movements and makes you sleep more- you think less, digestion gets slower, heart rate goes down. Basically, obesity is an attempt to slow down everything in order to reduce the amount of inflammation generated.
So, we make a mistake when we think that obesity is the real villain and combating obesity will solve your health problems. Real problem is inflammation. Solve that problem, and obesity will go away. Fortunately, most interventions directed towards combating obesity actually reduces inflammation. For example- fasting dramatically brings down inflammation resulting eventually in weight loss.
But, no matter how vigorously you exercise or how strictly you fast, unless inflammation is reduced you will never experience weight loss in a sustainable fashion.
The Main Killer of All Weight Loss Programs
As I explained, anything that would increase inflammation will cause you gain weight eventually.
Mental stress is actually one of the biggest cause of sustained high level inflammation. And it actually is the single most important factor that causes weight gain. (Hannan et al., 2015) (Nishitani et al., 2009) (Nishitani & Sakakibara, 2006).
A large amount of research has been conducted across the world on this- all come to same underlying conclusion- mental stress leads to obesity.
There is an interesting research in this line that was conducted by Siddique et al in 2022. In this research, the scientists recruited 2416 individuals and observed them for 7 years. At the end of the study, this research conclusively showed that there was direct correlation between mental stress and waist circumference. (Siddiqui et al., 2022)
In another study funded by Australian government, it was found that prolonged financial stress was a strong predictor of subsequent obesity. (Siahpush et al., 2014)
Mental stress is also a significant contributor towards obesity amongst adolescents. In a study conducted in Bangladesh, the scientists found that amongst 4609 adolescent students, aged 13–19 years, 61.5% were in moderate-to-extremely-severe levels of stress and 28.2% were overweight/obese. Their final analysis considering all factors suggested that obesity was 1.13 times more likely for those adolescents who had experienced stress due to school/leisure conflict.(Roy et al., 2021)
There is another interesting theory called “thrifty gene theory” that explains how stress leads to weight loss. Mental stress activates an ancestral defense mechanism hidden in our genes. Back in prehistoric times, our ancestors would depend on hunting for food. But that was not always sustainable. It all depended on availability of prey and personal fitness. If the prey was hard to find, their stress response would get activated. As a part of this response, body would start storing anything into fat whenever our ancestor would eat during those times of stress. This would help combat those periods when prey would not be available. If there is plenty of prey and food around for a long time, this response would be silenced. It seems we still carry components of those ancestral genes which get activated whenever we are stressed. So, mental stress makes these genes feel that there is upcoming “drought and lack of food” and triggers fat storage in our body. Hence, although there is plenty of food around, stress will make your body convert everything you eat into fat.(Siervo et al., 2009)
You need to control inflammation if you want to lose weight efficiently. Sleep is one of the best natural mechanisms towards controlling inflammation and repairing damage. A good restful sleep is another essential factor for successful weight loss. But mental stress leads to disturbed sleep low quality sleep, making all repair processes inefficient. And without these repair processes, inflammation remains uncontrolled leading to weight gain.(Almojali et al., 2017; McEwen, 2006; Van Laethem et al., 2017)
What to Do?
- Identify. Identify what is causing stress. It might be your job. It might be your financial situation. It might be your family situation.
- Know what is possible. We all know that it is not possible for everyone to remove all sources of mental stress. Identify those sources that can be immediately tackled.
- Seek help from family. Discuss with your family. Seek help from your spouse and kids. Let them know that family stress will just lead to weight gain and will deteriorate health. Regular clashes between couples or within family can be a big hurdle towards weight loss, since they will lead to enormous mental stress.
- Move away from sources of stress, if you can.
- Sleep well. A good sleep activates our anti- inflammatory mechanisms and helps repair the existing damages caused by inflammation. Try sleeping at the same time every day. And try meditating before you sleep.
- Meditate regularly. Meditation mimics sleep. Meditation, done correctly, is more efficient than sleep itself in activating our biological repair mechanisms and controlling inflammation.
- Try doing pranayamas regularly. Pranayamas are breathing exercises. Pranayamas, by controlling breathing processes, directly subside inflammation.
- Fast regularly. Fasting is extremely powerful in reducing inflammation.
- Do what you love doing. Follow your childhood passion. Make it as your hobby. Connect with people having similar hobby as yours and make a community. This will reduce mental stress substantially.
If you are mentally stressed, you will never lose weight sustainably. If your weight loss program is extremely strenuous and strict, you might lose a few pounds initially. But eventually you will gain back all the lost weight, if you have not controlled this stress.
- Almojali, A. I., Almalki, S. A., Alothman, A. S., Masuadi, E. M., & Alaqeel, M. K. (2017). The prevalence and association of stress with sleep quality among medical students. J Epidemiol Glob Health, 7(3), 169-174. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jegh.2017.04.005
- Hannan, J., Brooten, D., Youngblut, J. M., Hildago, I., Roche, R., & Seagrave, L. (2015). Physical activity and stress in adult Hispanics. J Am Assoc Nurse Pract, 27(2), 79-86. https://doi.org/10.1002/2327-6924.12127
- McEwen, B. S. (2006). Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: central role of the brain. Dialogues Clin Neurosci, 8(4), 367-381. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/bmcewen
- Nishitani, N., & Sakakibara, H. (2006). Relationship of obesity to job stress and eating behavior in male Japanese workers. Int J Obes (Lond), 30(3), 528-533. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0803153
- Nishitani, N., Sakakibara, H., & Akiyama, I. (2009). Eating behavior related to obesity and job stress in male Japanese workers. Nutrition, 25(1), 45-50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2008.07.008
- Roy, S. K., Jahan, K., Alam, N., Rois, R., Ferdaus, A., Israt, S., & Karim, M. R. (2021). Perceived stress, eating behavior, and overweight and obesity among urban adolescents. J Health Popul Nutr, 40(1), 54. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41043-021-00279-2
- Siahpush, M., Huang, T. T., Sikora, A., Tibbits, M., Shaikh, R. A., & Singh, G. K. (2014). Prolonged financial stress predicts subsequent obesity: results from a prospective study of an Australian national sample. Obesity (Silver Spring), 22(2), 616-621. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.20572
- Siddiqui, N. Z., Beulens, J. W. J., van der Vliet, N., den Braver, N. R., Elders, P. J. M., & Rutters, F. (2022). The longitudinal association between chronic stress and (visceral) obesity over seven years in the general population: The Hoorn Studies. Int J Obes (Lond), 46(10), 1808-1817. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41366-022-01179-z
- Siervo, M., Wells, J. C., & Cizza, G. (2009). The contribution of psychosocial stress to the obesity epidemic: an evolutionary approach. Horm Metab Res, 41(4), 261-270. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0028-1119377
- Van Laethem, M., Beckers, D. G. J., Dijksterhuis, A., & Geurts, S. A. E. (2017). Stress, fatigue, and sleep quality leading up to and following a stressful life event. Stress Health, 33(4), 459-469. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.2730