Is Cultural Stress Making It Harder to Lose Weight?

You may have noticed that the world is getting fatter. In 2017-18, an astounding 74% of adult Americans were overweight, while nearly 43% of them were obese. Worldwide, obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.

Interestingly, although excess weight was once considered a “rich country” phenomenon, overweight and obesity rates are now climbing in low- and middle-income countries, as well, particularly in urban settings. Indeed, most of the world’s people now live in countries where being overweight kills more people than being underweight.

In other words, we’re gaining weight as more and more people become subject to Cultural Stress, the constant, all-pervasive stress of modern living.

The International Journal of Psychiatry Research recently published an article of mine on “The Cultural Stress Theory of Obesity.” In it, my co-authors and I conclude that, though there are many factors that lead to weight gain and make weight loss difficult, the pervasiveness of Cultural Stress adds to and compounds them all.

For starters, Cultural Stress often leads to a state of constant anxiety that triggers the body’s inflammation response, including release of the stress hormone cortisol, which is linked to weight gain. Cultural Stress also disrupts sleep, which again dysregulates hormones, while it increases the consumption of “comfort foods,” which are typically loaded with refined carbohydrates and saturated fats. Together, these factors can result in a self-defeating cycle, where increased glucocorticoid action, obesity, and stress interact and amplify each other.

Second, changes in our professional lives—where we either sit through long commutes, or sit at our desks at home—have reduced our physical activity to the point that “sitting is the new smoking” has become a shorthand reference to the long list of diseases attributed to our increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

Third, as our connections have become virtual and all that we need can be delivered—from groceries via Instacart to entertainment via Hulu to merchandise via Amazon—we have found ourselves increasingly isolated from real-world relationships. We can also fall victim to comparing our own lives with the curated content of our friends’ social media feeds—and feel like under-achievers as a result.

It’s well-documented that isolation leads to loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other disorders. Any one of these can also lead to weight gain, as the lockdown response to Covid-19 has demonstrated. Many people have reported gaining four to 10 pounds as a result of eating to reduce boredom, eating to reduce stress, or both. Isolation also can trigger negative self-talk that results in a cycle of binging-depression-self-loathing-binging. Finally, isolation is also likely to reduce physical exercise, which is itself a stress reducer.

The most debilitating aspect of Cultural Stress is its chronic nature. Our bodies can recover from conventional stress, which is incident-specific: a traumatizing event; an accident or injury; a job loss; a divorce; the death of a loved one. Devastating as the event might be, the body can repair itself once the stressful incident has passed. Chronic stress, however, doesn’t give us this opportunity. Our bodies never get a chance to return to normal. The result is chronic inflammation, which over time becomes “inflammaging,” which has been linked to over 90% of all cancers, as well as to other diseases associated with aging, including Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, macular degeneration, arthritis, and more.

Because Cultural Stress, like chronic inflammation, has become the matrix in which modern humans live, it is essential that we practice Cultural Stress management. Self-care is, quite literally, health care.

My article in The International Journal of Psychiatry also described the Cultural Stress management program we recommended for the six participants in our pilot study. Participants were advised to:

  • Determine the sources of their Cultural Stress.
  • Develop a plan to reduce their impact. (Silence their cell phones; limit their time on social media; set aside time for rest and recreation, etc.)
  • Practice being mindful. (Schedule time each day to meditate or be quiet and enjoy the simple rhythms of life.)
  • Recognize that though they may not be able to control stressful situations, they can control their response. Take a deep breath. Why have a bad day when you can have a good day?
  • Exercise regularly. Go for a walk, practice yoga, or take an exercise class. Being physically active, even for just a few minutes, can make a difference in the way you feel.
  • Nourish their bodies. Avoid the standard American diet. Eat foods that increase the water content in your body—a diet full of whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, good fats and proteins. Take a nutritional supplement to fill any gaps in your diet.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Seven to nine hours of sleep every night are necessary to fully restore the body. Find the time to recharge your body at night so you have the energy to face the challenges that come up every day.
  • Read affirmative Insight Cards twice a day to induce positive emotions such as gratitude, optimism, forgiveness, etc., and productive states of awareness
  • Journal at least once a day to develop internal strength to make gradual, positive, Cultural Stress-reducing changes in their lives that lead to healthier choices.

The participants in our pilot study all enjoyed measurable, positive changes in their lives, across gene expression, hormonal status, intracellular water content, cellular metabolism, and skin health (reduction in fine lines and wrinkles, UV damage and acne). Participants also reported reduced Cultural Stress and depression levels, and increased self-confidence. Those for whom weight was an issue lost weight and felt empowered to maintain this and other improvements—physical, emotional, and mental— in their lives.

It is my wish for you—and indeed, my mission at this stage of my life—to encourage everyone to recognize the threat posed by Cultural Stress and to take proactive steps to manage it. That’s Modern Wellness!


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