Why Cultural Stress is making it harder to lose weight

(It’s not just you!)

It’s no secret that obesity is on the rise—even among school-age children and toddlers! Although once considered a problem restricted to affluent countries, obesity is also increasing in low- and middle-income countries around the world, particularly in urban areas.

While diet and exercise certainly play a role in weight gain, most people underestimate the importance of stress in their ability to control and manage their weight.


For starters, most people don’t realize the constant stress they are living with. This is the #1 characteristic of what I call “Cultural Stress”—the 24-hour stress of modern living: it’s always with us.

Constant (chronic) stress is a hormone disregulator. It triggers the body’s inflammation response, including the release of stress hormones—primarily cortisol—that are linked to weight gain. Cortisol-triggered fat deposition tends to occur in the abdomen and is strongly correlated with the development of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes. This low-grade inflammation over time contributes to virtually all of the degenerative diseases we associate with aging.

However stress-induced cortisol is not the only culprit in weight gain. Sleep deprivation also disrupts hormones, including cortisol and many others, including insulin, which moderates blood sugar levels; ghrelin, which initiates hunger response; and leptin, which provides the sensation of fullness. So, when you’re losing sleep, ghrelin levels go up and leptin levels go down, increasing hunger signals and minimizing satiety signals. You wake up hungry and find it harder to feel full.

And what is the most common reason people give for losing sleep?


Sleep deprivation can have long-term consequences on health. In addition to obesity, sleepless individuals are more prone to heart disease, stroke and diabetes (Harvard Medical School, 2007), as well as mental health problems such as anxiety, unstable moods and even thoughts of suicide.

Of course, one of the best ways to dissipate stress and get a good night’s sleep is through vigorous exercise. However, with our over-scheduled lives, sedentary jobs, longer commutes, and the ability to have goods and services delivered by means of a few clicks on our smartphones, fewer of us are getting the exercise we should. We’re sitting too much and moving too little. Some of us aren’t even moving beyond the front door. We don’t have to, thanks to work-from-home options and all-hour delivery of everything from pizza to prescriptions. In addition to being sedentary, we also feel increasingly isolated, even if we live in a megalopolis of hundreds of millions of people.

In fact, we’re more likely to feel isolated in a big city because we’re less likely to know the people we encounter every day. The resulting feelings of isolation are another leading indicator of Cultural Stress, contributing to a host of mental and physical health problems, from depression to cardiovascular disease and stroke. Humans have evolved as social beings. Social interactions are meant to be an important source of comfort and affirmation for us.

When we cut ourselves off from others—or when we substitute online relationships for in-person interactions—we’re setting ourselves up to feel isolated, anxious, and depressed. And what’s the closest source of comfort? Food! Unfortunately, comfort food is typically fat- and carbohydrate-laden. It might make us feel better in the moment, but it’s likely to lead to unwanted weight gain—especially if we’re sedentary and not sleeping well. When we use food to fill an emotional void, we often initiate a negative spiral of binging-depression-self-loathing-binging. We saw this during the Covid pandemic lockdown: many people gained an average of 10-15 pounds.

If stress-induced eating weren’t harmful enough, changes in the global food system towards more refined and processed foods in place of whole foods, also play a role in stressing our systems. So when eating, make sure to emphasize water-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, embryonic foods such as nuts and seeds, lean protein, and healthy fats, such as Omega 3s.

All of these characteristics of modern society contribute to a condition we call Cultural Stress Anxiety Syndrome (CSAS) It’s our body’s response to the constant, pervasive, ever-increasing stress of modern living, and it aggravates all other causes of obesity. As a paper in Obesity Review concluded in 2018, “In our modern society, the obesity pandemic coincides with an increase in factors that enhance cortisol production, such as chronic stress, consumption of food with a high glycemic index, and a reduced amount of sleep. This suggests a vicious circle, where increased glucocorticoid action, obesity, and stress interact and amplify each other. This hypothesis is supported by recent studies demonstrating significant correlations between obesity and long-term cortisol levels, as measured in scalp hair, in both adults and children.”

What can you do?

#1. First of all, recognize self-care as fundamental. It’s not a luxury. You owe it to yourself to nurture your own happiness and well-being—because it is constantly being undermined by the conditions of modern living.

#2. Begin each day with a few moments of reflection and appreciation of the world behind your eyes. Check in with the inner you, who is patiently waiting, whole and complete, despite what your social media feeds may tell you. If you need inspiration to get started, you might enjoy contemplating my positive Insight cards. You can download them for free. Or, you can subscribe to my free “Better Every Day” app, which is available on Apple and Google.

#3. Eat well. You can’t run a car or a computer without fuel; your body is no different. For days when you don’t have time, have something prepared in advance that you can grab on the run: a couple of hard-boiled eggs, a handful of nuts, an apple or banana and perhaps some nut butter.

#4. Take time to exercise. Many people like to do this before work, before the demands of the day take priority. Those who walk, or jog, or bicycle in nature often tell me this is their most creative time of the day. Here’s a pro tip: Leave your cell phone at home! And here’s another: choose one or more exercise types that you enjoy—from rollerblading to t’ai chi. You’re more likely to stick with activities you love.

#5. Nourish your skin—after all, it is experiencing Cultural Stress too. Between UV rays, smog, smoke, dryness, and other insults, your skin is working overtime to keep toxins out and moisture in. You can help by eating moisture-rich foods, building muscle (which retains more water than fat), and protecting your skin with moisturizers and sunscreen—even on cloudy days!

Following these five steps to manage Cultural Stress will empower you to effectively manage your weight over the long term. The result will not only be a weight you can live with, but a happier, healthier you all around.

For more about conquering Cultural Stress and maintaining a healthy weight, read my book on the subject: Conquering Cultural Stress.

To your health!

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider, who should also be consulted with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.


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