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Dr. Gary Evans, Cornell University – Stress and Obesity

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Gary Evans of Cornell University explains the link between stress and obesity.

Gary Evans is a professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology.  He studies how the physical environment affects human health and well being among children, including the link between stress and obesity. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

About Dr. Evans

Dr. Gary Evans – Stress and Obesity

New research is shedding light on why – like most other health problems – obesity is not randomly distributed in the population.  For instance, poor and underprivileged people are more likely to become overweight, and we’re finding that stress is one of several reasons for this.

In many ways, poor people have a lot more daily stress in their lives, and research suggests this stress can increase one’s appetite for fat and sugar.  Stress also erodes self-control – something essential to maintaining a healthy diet.  Animal models have even shown damage to a part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, that is centrally involved in our ability to regulate our behavior.

In my study published in the journal Pediatrics, nine-year-old children who were chronically exposed to such stressors as poverty, crowded housing and family turmoil gained more weight and were significantly heavier by age 13 than they would have been otherwise.  Furthermore, this connection between chronic stress and being overweight was explained, in part, by poor self regulatory skills.  Children facing a lot of stress had worse self regulation skills and these, in turn, helped explain the link between chronic stress and being overweight.

It doesn’t help that poor and underprivileged people tend to live in places with more fast food and less access to healthy, affordable food.  Not only are the poor more likely to live in a food dessert, they also have fewer places to be physically active, whether it’s parks, playgrounds, or open green space.

Even a casual observer can’t help but notice that Americans are getting larger, and while there are many approaches to tackling the obesity pandemic, nearly all concur on the importance of intervening early.

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