Category Archives: Fat or Flight Response: Stress and Obesity

Fat or Flight Response: Stress and Obesity

Stress affects the human body in powerful ways. Some of these make us gain weight.
1.How Stress Causes Obesity
2.Modern Stress is Different

Latino Toddlers Fatter than Playmates

Data mining has uncovered a disturbing trend: Latino children become fat much earlier than black or white playmates. A full 20% of boys are overweight by age four.

What’s going on here? These kids aren’t shopping, cooking or deciding their menus.

Using national data sets culled from 40,000 children over 12 years, researchers teased the differences from race, sex, and insurance status variables.

Gilbert C. Liu and colleagues reported their findings as The obesity epidemic in children: Latino children are disproportionately affected at younger ages in International Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in March 2015.

In contrast, white and black children reached that high percentage closer to 7 and 9 years of age.

“Moreover, significant proportions of Latino children become overweight before entering grade school, suggesting that grade-school-based obesity prevention is too late for this high-risk population. Our study contributes to a growing body of evidence that indicates an increased risk of overweight in Latino preschoolers, and our study is distinguished by its large body of longitudinal data.”

Other studies point to this disparity: (See references here.)

NHANES: overweight prevalence in Mexican American children estimated to be between 13.1% compared to 8.6% for black and 8.8% for white

 WIC: overweight prevalence in more than 2 million preschoolers: Hispanic is 17.9% compared to 11.7%, for black and 11.4%, for white.

 Fragile Families and Child Well-being: of 2452 children, ages 3 years, nearly 26% of Hispanics were overweight compared to16.2% blacks, 14.8% for whites.

This data suggests, strongly, that school programs to combat obesity may come too late.

Tackling the problem starts with one big question: why so many Hispanics? Early research suggests possible answers:

  • Thrifty genes soak up calories when plentiful
  • Cooking practices
  • Exercise habits
  • Body image

The authors conclude:

 “Further studies should focus on the emergence of further metabolic and cardiovascular risk factors and on developing targeted prevention and intervention strategies in young children, their families, and the communities in which they live.”

Student Body Craves Attention

School is all about the brain and increasingly very little about the body. Calculus and test-taking have pushed physical education classes off the schedule in most schools in the United States. Results? Not smarter kids as you may expect but sometimes hyperactive kids in need of meds to keep them in their seats and overweight kids with health problems.

Stephen E. Erfle of Dickinson College addressed the issue in a book chapter titled “Analyzing the Effects of Daily Physical Education in Middle Schools on Obesity: Evidence from Pennsylvania’s Active Schools Program” from the 2014 Handbook of Physical Education Research: Role of School Programs, Children’s Attitudes and Health Implications.

The question: Do students at schools with daily PE (minimum 30 minutes) have significantly better outcomes than students at schools without daily PE?

Thirty schools in Pennsylvania with daily PE and nine control—no daily PE– schools took part.


  • Certain programs were deemed more successful.
  • Females had higher treatment effect on health outcomes including body mass index (BMI) changes.
  • Males had  higher treatment effect on behavioral outcomes including changes in curl-ups, push-ups and mile run.

This study from Pennsylvania suggests positive health benefits from daily physical education in the curriculum. Yet state education laws in the United States differ. And the link to weight and other health outcomes is not clear in all cases.

Countries around the world struggle with soaring obesity in their children. It pays to look for inspiration in places where those numbers are less daunting. In some countries, such as Germany, physical exercise is a big part of a young child’s school day but becomes less so in high school. However, the school day at all levels is shorter, allowing ample time for sports which usually take place on club teams.

Perhaps “instruction” in physical education is not the only answer. Instead, a shorter school day with ample resources for basketball or jump rope or community sports would allow more young people to catch the exercise bug.

Book Stores and Beaches Do Mix

Thanks to all who attended my pseudo-TED (Truly Enlightening Discourse) talk in Santa Monica on Saturday at Barnes & Noble on 3rd Street Promenade.I know it wasn’t easy given that the awesome SoCal beach was just two blocks away. There are still a few signed copies of Globesity: 10 Things You Didn’t Know Were Making You Fat available at the store (call 310 260 9110 to reserve or order). Hannah, thanks for the deck work. Frank, thanks for the lovely event set-up.

FYI: TED’s mission statement:

“We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other…”

Community of curious souls. I’d be honored to be part of that.

Rules of Attraction

Impulsive people are less able to inhibit responses. Thus it seems likely that people struggling to maintain a proper weight also struggle to say “no” to tempting high-calorie foods like cake and candy. Is this impulsive nature only with food or also with other areas of life as well?

One interesting study from Maastricht University in the Netherlands looked at 87 females who were tested with general stimuli and also with food-related pictures. A higher body mass index (BMI) was linked more often with impulsivity with food-related photos. No real surprise there. But interestingly, there was no more impulsivity linked with general stimuli in those with higher BMIs.

The message?

The authors write: The implication is that weight loss interventions need to focus on decreasing food-specific impulsivity rather than on reducing general impulsivity.”



Why Stress Adds Pounds

Some of us gain weight when under stress.
It is a response far more complex than keeping our hands or mouths busy. One type of chronic stress called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) elicits complicated hormonal developments.

Recently researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology  observed rats exposed to stressors and found increases in circulating ghrelin, a hormone which enhances appetite. Also, the MIT scientists found a link between ghrelin and growth hormone. Find the study here at Molecular Psychiatry journal.
What this means for us: our body will defend against trauma in various ways which can eventually be nefarious if extra pounds are an outcome. Our care model for PTSD must include prevention (weight management, cognitive therapy) as well as mental health treatments.