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Debt Can Make You Overweight

Depth and extra weight

Being in debt and worrying about how you are going to make that next credit card and mortgage payment can make you overweight. That’s the word from researchers, who say that “the recent credit crunch will have health implications,” and that “debt can be associated with the probability of being overweight or obese.”

The investigators from the University of Mainz, Germany, studied more than 9,000 people and found that 25 percent of the 949 people in debt were obese, compared to only 11 percent of the remaining 8,318 participants. One of the biggest factors in the relationship between debt and being overweight is stress; another is having to choose less expensive, often sugary and fatty foods.

According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” report, 43 percent of people say they overeat or eat unhealthy foods when they are under stress, and worries about work (or the lack thereof) and debt, especially house costs and medical costs, are among the most stressful.

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The biology of stress, debt, and being overweight begins with biochemistry. When the body is in a stressful state, it releases large amounts of stress hormones, especially cortisol. The longer cortisol and other stress hormones remain at high levels in the body, the more damage they can cause, including memory problems, insomnia, depression, fatigue, a buildup of fat in the arteries that can lead to heart disease, and accumulation of fat molecules, which can lead to overweight and obesity.

Actually, stress and cortisol work in two ways to promote weight gain: retention of fat molecules and triggering overeating as a way to deal with the stress and depression. High cortisol levels can increase food cravings, especially for sweets and foods high in fat. People in debt may turn to “comfort foods,” such as ice cream, cookies and cake, candy, and other sugar-rich foods because they have a calming effect.

When sugar hits the taste buds, they release endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer. The endorphins tell the body to release the hormone serotonin, which can make you feel good. Eating lots of sugary foods quickly raises the body’s blood sugar levels, giving you a temporary high. The higher you feel, the harder you will fall, causing you to feel down and depressed. The solution: you eat more comfort foods, starting the cycle again and promoting weight gain.

Given the current economic climate, it does not appear that the stress associated with debt and money worries will go away soon. In the meantime, here are some tips on how to avoid overeating and overweight during these trying times:

  • Think before you eat. If you’re going to eat something to make you “feel better,” go take a walk, call a friend, read, play a video game, or anything that will distract you.
  • Don’t buy sugary and other tempting foods. If they are not in the house, you are less likely to eat them.
  • Change your habits. If you typically eat cookies while you’re driving in rush hour traffic, bring a bottle of spring water instead.
  • Never grocery shop when you’re hungry.
  • Do not engage in other activities while you are eating, such as watching TV or driving. This leads to mindless overeating and overweight.
  • Practice stress-reduction methods such as yoga, meditation, exercise, tai chi, or hypnosis.

American Psychological Association, “Stress in America” report 2007
Munster E et al. BMC Public Health August 2009; 9:286