Stress can get you fat. And then kill you.

stress meSome people lose weight under stressful conditions and some gain weight. How does that play into the risk for the cardiovascular disease and subsequent mortality? Medical doctors keep warning us that fat people are at risk for diabetes and heart disease. Turns out that being a little on the heavy side might actually not be that bad. It all depends on what kind of fat and where it is.

The paper featured today reviews a series of interesting articles with surprising results. Peters & McEwen (2015) identify three distinct phenotypes:

1) The good stress leads to well-proportionate body shape. People who live in safe environments, they do well socioeconomically, they have good self-esteem, and they have a fulfilling social and family life. They experience low levels of stress, they are well proportionate, and have a low mortality rate due to cardiovascular disease. Might as well call these ones the lucky ones.

2) The tolerable stress leads to corpulent-but-narrow-waisted body shape. People who experience stress but in order to cope with it they supply the brain with more energy by eating more. So they become more corpulent, gaining subcutaneous fat, but their cardiovascular mortality risk remains low.

3) The toxic stress leads to lean-but-wide-waisted body shape. People who experience prolonged stress exposure to uncertain socioeconomic conditions, poor work, or family life. They have low self-esteem, often associated with depressive periods. They are or become lean, but they accumulate large visceral fat deposits (as opposed to subcutaneous), and their cardiovascular mortality risk is the highest. They also are at risk for other physical and mental disorders. The phenotype 3 people have a wider waist relative to their body mass index and height.

Source: Peters & McEwen (2015, p.144)
Source: Peters & McEwen (2015, p.144)

Thus, the authors propose that instead or along with the body mass index, another metric should be used to identify the ones in dire need of help: the body shape index. Also, the review outlines the mechanisms responsible for these findings.

So next time you see a not so well-proportionate person, smile. Maybe even offer to help or chat; you don’t know what they’re going through.

Reference: Peters, A. & McEwen, B. S. (September 2015, Epub 3 July 2015). Stress habituation, body shape and cardiovascular mortality. Neuroscience Biobehavioral Reviews, 56:139-50. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2015.07.001. Article | FREE PDF

By Neuronicus, 5 October 2015