Stress may turn overweight teens away from food

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When exposed to stress, overweight adolescents tend to eat less and avoid high-fat and sugary options, research finds.

That’s contrary to the belief that people react to stress by turning to comfort foods—cravings that the appetite-stimulating stress hormone cortisol fuels.

Even more surprising, kids who produced the most cortisol after the stressor had the biggest appetite reduction, eating about 35% fewer calories in the following two hours, says principal investigator Rebecca Hasson, associate professor of movement science at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology.

Researchers saw similar results whether adolescents in the study monitored their food intake or not. This matters because people who restrict calories are more likely to stress eat.

That didn’t happen among these children, and the results suggest that a biological response—such as the flood of cortisol or the satiety hormone leptin—drove their reduced appetite.

As reported in Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers wanted to understand how biology and behavior affect the eating patterns of kids with excess weight. The study involved approximately 60 children.

Hasson and first author Matthew Nagy, an alumnus of the School of Public Health, wanted to understand how biology and behavior affect the eating patterns of children with excess weight.

“These are really exciting findings because they give us a chance to observe eating patterns when adults are exposed to stress, which is a very important factor in childhood obesity, long-term cardiovascular risk, and type 2 diabetes risk,” says Hasson, who also leads the University of Michigan Childhood Disparities Research Lab and is an associate professor of nutritional sciences in the School of Public Health.

“This doesn’t mean stress kids out and they’ll lose weight. This is in the short term only. They may eat more calories later. Typically, many kids did say they turned to food when stressed, so maybe this was a time effect.”

Also, even if the cortisol spike didn’t cause overeating, it’s still metabolically unhealthy, she says.

Much work remains to see who’s susceptible to big cortisol spikes and the long-term effects of stress, the researchers say.

Source: University of Michigan