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Life's Stress May Lead to Weight Gain

Study Shows Stress on the Job or Stress at Home Can Cause Some Waistlines to Grow
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 8, 2009 -- Lost your job? Worried you will? Feeling a lack of control over decision-making at work? If you've been gaining weight, chances are you answered "yes" to one or maybe all of those questions, new research indicates.

A study in the July 15 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that when heavier men and women are stressed, they gain weight.

Women's waistlines are affected by sources of stress, such as strained family relationships, job demands, difficulty with paying bills, and feeling limited by life's circumstances, the study shows. The research was conducted by Jason Block, MD, MPH, who worked on the study at Harvard University while he was a Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar.

Block and colleagues found that men were more likely to gain weight due to job demands, lack of decision-making authority, difficulty paying bills, and lack of skill discretion -- the ability to learn new skills and perform interesting new duties.

The researchers use the term "psychological stress" to describe the factors that caused the weight gain; they say study participants were more likely to gain weight if they already had a higher body mass index (BMI).

Thinner people dealing with the same sorts of stressors didn't exhibit a similar weight-gain pattern, the researchers say in a news release.

People who are coping with stressful periods may change eating patterns and the types of food they consume, the researchers say.

"This is one of the first studies to explore the relationship between stress and weight gain in a U.S. population," Block says in the news release. "Our findings show that stress should be recognized as a threat to the well-being of American adults, especially those who area already overweight."

The researchers analyzed data on a nationally representative group of 1,355 men and women from 1995 to 2004. The study was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute on Aging.

"Our results also highlight apparent sex differences in the influence of stress on weight gain," the researchers write. "Some stressors outside of work or finances, including general life constraints and strain in relationships with family, were associated with weight gain among women but not among men, suggesting effects on weight from a broader range of life domains on women."

The researchers write that clinicians should be aware that such stressors can lead to weight gain; they suggest that workplace stress-reduction programs be part of weight loss programs for overweight and obese people.

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