Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Timi Gustafson, R.D.

GET UPDATES FROM Timi Gustafson, R.D.

The Reason You're Gaining Weight

Posted: 02/22/2013 12:24 pm

People get fat from eating too much and exercising too little. At least that's the most widely held explanation for the growing obesity crisis around the world. But it's not that simple, says Dr. Achim Peters, a professor of neurology at the University of Lübeck in Germany and author of "The Selfish Brain -- Why Our Brain Sabotages Dieting and Resists the Body" (Ullstein, 2011).

The worldwide obesity epidemic is in truth a stress epidemic, and unhealthy weight gain is just one of the ills that plague an increasingly stressed population trying to cope with the ever-growing demands of modern life, he says in an interview with the German news magazine "Der Spiegel."

In reality, weight issues are often rooted in socio-economic difficulties like job loss, poverty, rising food prices and other existential uncertainties, he says. It puts tremendous pressure on people. Stress-producing situations can be immensely damaging to our health, especially when they persist over long periods of time with no reprieve in sight.

Dr. Peters is best known for the "Selfish Brain Theory," which he developed together with an interdisciplinary team of scientists over a decade ago when researching the origins of obesity. In essence, the theory describes how the brain takes care of its own needs first when regulating energy distribution throughout the body. It is "selfish" in the sense that it always wins out in any competition for energy resources, at the expense of all other organs if necessary.

In times of stress, the brain spends particularly high amounts of energy, which requires an increase in food intake. During acute stress situations, a rapid spike in energy demand is natural and not harmful. It is different when stress is prolonged. Then it can become a chronic state and as such quite dangerous.

To shed some light on these dynamics, it is important to understand our body's hormonal responses to stress. Energy in the body is regulated and mobilized by a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol selects the right type and amount of energy to meet the body's demands when responding to a particular situation. Cortisol is also responsible for mobilizing energy by tapping into the body's fat stores and moving it to where it's most needed, primarily in the brain.

Studies in animals and humans have shown that heightened secretion of cortisol is associated with increased appetite, especially for sugar. In cases of enduring stress, this can stimulate food consumption to the point of overeating with all the detrimental consequences we are so familiar with. Moreover, too much cortisol can slow the metabolism, causing more weight gain than would normally occur. It can also affect fat distribution. Fat in the stomach area is considered a greater health risk than when it's stored around the hips and thighs.

Ultimately, we will not be able to address the obesity crisis effectively if we continue to ignore the effects of chronic stress on our hormonal system, says Dr. Peters. Asking people to diet and force themselves to lose weight through deprivation can only make things worse. The solution is to de-stress our lives. This doesn't mean more yoga and meditating, although that can help too, but mostly better socio-economic security and, as a result, peace of mind for more people.

As a point in case he cites a study conducted by the University of Chicago that compared two groups of single mothers from low-income neighborhoods. One group of women was moved to a more upscale area with safer streets, greater job opportunities and better schools, the other was left in place. Within a few years, most of the women who had moved away showed considerable improvement in their health, especially in reduction of diabetes and obesity. As their stress lessened, their well-being increased on every level.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson, R.D.

LOOK: 10 fitness trends experts forecast for 2013:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Combination Classes

    Spoga? Not really, but combination classes are one trend to look out for in 2013, according to <a href="http://www.infinitefit.ca/about/about.html">personal fitness trainer Jessica Zapata of Edmonton, Alta</a>. Zapata says people who love yoga and spinning, for example, can incorporate both types of exercises in one — something she has already seen at her own gym with a class called 'Spinyasa Yoga.' "Other popular ones are spinning class and pilates, those are wait-listed every week," she says.

  • Hot Yoga

    Get ready to sweat! While already on the radar for the past few years, hot yoga will continue to soar in popularity next year. Composed of yoga positions performed in hot or humid conditions, for 2013, the experts at GoodLife Fitness say this kind of yoga, along with more accessible types, will allow <a href="http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/1091325/top-10-canadian-fitness-trends-for-2013">consumers to both exercise and be zen with their minds, bodies and spirits.</a>

  • Demographic-Specific Programming

    Sure, kids are cute, but you probably don't want them in your gym with you. The experts at GoodLife Fitness predict more demographic-specific programming for the year ahead, including targeted classes for older adults, <a href="http://www.goodlifefitness.com/teenfitness/">children and youth, and sport-specific classes for teens.</a>

  • Small Group Training

    Think of it like one-on-one training with five other people. Zapata says small group training (with an average class of six people) will also be popular in 2013, as it will let fitness lovers focus on their individual strengths and goals, while being in a class with others to support them.

  • Express Workouts

    Sometimes, you only have 30 minutes to spare. In 2013 (and every year, we would argue) people are looking for the most effective and speedy workout, according to GoodLife fitness experts. Classes like <a href="http://www.lesmills.com/cx30/about-cxworx.aspx">CXWORX, for example, can burn up to 230 calories in 30 minutes,</a> and are being offered at all sorts of gyms. Focusing on the core, as well as the butt, these workouts are meant to hit as much as possible in a minimal amount of time.

  • TRX

    TRX is a <a href="http://www.trxtraining.com/suspension-training#">suspension trainer program that uses your body weight to perform a variety of exercises</a> and allows you to control your own challenge levels. "TRX is already popular but it will grow even more in 2013," Zapata says.

  • Technology And Fitness

    Your fitness goals will follow your every step in 2013 — at least if you want them to. Experts at GoodLife predict there will be more apps, computer programs and websites in 2013 that will help both beginners and fitness professionals track their progress levels. For example, <a href="http://www.adidas.com/ca/micoach/">Adidas's miCoach</a> collects cardio movement data and builds targeted training programs for users.

  • Back To Basics

    Zapata also says that 2013 will have people going back to the basics. So yes, those sit-ups, push-ups and jumping jacks you hated in gym class will be showing up at your gym more often. "It's not just going to be about the trends. People want variety and they want results," she says.

  • Skipping Diets

    It's time for Atkins and the <a href="http://www.dukandiet.co.uk/">Dukan Diet</a> to say goodbye for good. In 2013, people will more likely stick to healthier eating habits than relying on fad diets, says Brad Taylor, <a href="http://www.fitliving.ca/">fitness trainer and owner of Fit Living</a> in Regina, Sask. "People are beginning to see that dieting doesn't work and it takes a lifestyle change to get results."

  • Corporate Wellness

    Experts at GoodLife predict that in 2013, more and more <a href="http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/1091325/top-10-canadian-fitness-trends-for-2013">offices will take the initial step to provide wellness and fitness programs</a> for employees both inside the office and out. "With a healthy and active workforce, <a href="http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/1091325/top-10-canadian-fitness-trends-for-2013">Canadian organizations will be able to increase productivity and morale</a>," they said in a press release.


Follow Timi Gustafson, R.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD