Obesity Linked to Premature Aging--and Stress!

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 1.9 billion adults and 380 million children are overweight or obese. For perhaps the first time in human history, more people are dying from being overweight than underweight!

In an article recently published in Obesity Reviews, researchers from Concordia University, Canada, argued that obesity should be considered premature aging. That’s because obesity predisposes people to the kinds of illnesses normally seen in older individuals: compromised genomes, weakened immune systems, decreased cognition, and increased susceptibility to diseases like type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other conditions. Indeed, the motivation for the study arose from Santosa’s alarm over the number of obese children who were developing adult-onset conditions of diseases, such as hypertension, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. She also realized that the comorbidities of obesity were similar to that of aging.

As described in the article, the researchers, led by Dr. Sylvia Santosa, associate professor of health, kinesiology and applied physiology at Concordia and a Tier 2 Canada research chair in clinical nutrition, reviewed more than 200 papers examining the effects of obesity on cell health and repair, the immune system, and the body’s susceptibility to diseases normally associated with aging—ranging from loss of muscle mass and strength to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

At the cellular level, they found that obesity directly accelerates the mechanisms of aging—including the decline of the cells’ ability to maintain and repair themselves. This is an effect normally associated with age, but the researchers noted it in studies of obese patients, as well.

At the genetic level, the researchers found that obesity’s negative health effects also include the shortening of telomeres—protective caps found on the ends of chromosomes. The telomeres of obese patients were up to 25 per cent shorter than those seen in control patients.

The researchers also listed stress as among the conditions associated with both obesity and aging. But what the article didn’t mention is that stress itself is a contributing factor to obesity. Stress and anxiety cause your adrenal glands to release cortisol, stimulating glycogen in the liver and muscles for use as a quick energy source. This response—known as “fight or flight”—is appropriate if you’re actually going to fight or flee. However, modern humans seldom have to do either. Instead, the constant excess cortisol generated by our high-stress lifestyle leads to loss of muscle mass, increased fat storage—predominantly in the abdominal area—and impulses to eat compulsively—in ways that have little or nothing to do with nutrition. Stress also robs us of the sleep we need to repair our cells and calm our nervous system. Lack of sleep produce additional hormonal changes that cause us to eat more, feel less satisfied with our food, and retain weight. If all of this weren’t bad enough, research has also confirmed that excess stress hormones can actually cause both anxiety and depression, and contribute to the likelihood of an anxiety attack. According to the National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service, other signs of elevated cortisol levels are high blood glucose levels, high blood pressure and fatigue.

In other words, stress leads to obesity, which increases stress…it’s a vicious cycle!

What can we do about it?

I’ve written extensively about how to eat a healthy, water-rich diet. The approach to weight loss I recommend in my little book, Help! My Diet is a Mess!, is to adopt a “whole life diet,” which includes focusing first on reducing stress. One way to do that is to spend time each day contemplating positive insights or affirmations such as, “Why have a bad day when you can have a good day?” “Be thrilled with who you are.” “If it’s no big deal, don’t make a big deal about it.” And “forgive yourself.” (Here is a link to all 11 of these positive affirmations. You can also download my free app and get a new affirmation every day.)

The point of this practice is to unplug for a little while each day from our constant litany of demands and expectations and simply rest our minds on positive thoughts that can help us to relax.

The second part of the “whole life diet” is to focus on eating a nutritious “low stress” diet. By that I mean that, rather than trying to follow a strict diet regimen emphasizing all the things you can’t eat and equally strict rules about the quantity of those you can, why not simply focus instead on eating foods that are good for you? That means a varied diet, rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and what I call “embryonic foods,” e.g., eggs, seeds, and nuts, and avoiding processed foods—especially “fast foods.” Take time to prepare and enjoy your food; share it with friends; and don’t worry so much about doing it “wrong.” After all, that only increases your stress! I also recommend adopting the “80/20 rule,” which means, follow your eating plan 80% of the time and allow yourself to indulge 20% of the time. As I tell my patients, maintaining a healthy weight may have as much or more to do with how we live as what we eat. Exercise plays a vital role, as does a rich and fulfilling social life—by which I mean face-to-face and person-to-person.

Don’t let stress and obesity age you prematurely! Take time to value yourself and your health. That doesn’t mean following any program perfectly. It means allowing yourself the freedom to relax and head in a generally health direction.

That’s Modern Wellness.


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