A new study provides further evidence of the link between psychological stress and weight gain, after finding that a woman’s risk of obesity may be heightened by bad life experiences.

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Researchers suggest that bad life experiences may increase women’s risk of obesity.

Researchers found that women who experienced traumatic events in their lifetime or negative life events over the past 5 years were more likely to become obese, compared with women who had not experienced such events.

Senior study author Dr. Michelle A. Albert, of the Center for the Study of Adversity and Cardiovascular Disease at the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues recently presented their findings at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2017, held in Anaheim, CA.

Obesity remains one of the largest public health burdens in the United States, affecting more than a third of adults and putting them at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers.

Previous research has shown that psychological stress can influence our eating habits.

Dr. Albert says, “We know that stress affects behavior, including whether people under- or overeat, as well as neurohormonal activity by in part increasing cortisol production, which is related to weight gain.”

However, the researchers note that little is known about how negative life experiences or traumatic events might influence the likelihood of obesity. This is what Dr. Albert and colleagues sought to find out with their new study.

The researchers analyzed the data of 21,904 middle-aged and older women who were a part of the 2012–2013 Women’s Health Study.

The team looked at the number of self-reported traumatic life events (such as the death of a child, a physical attack, or a life-threatening illness) among the women, as well as the number of negative life events (such as unemployment for at least 3 months or being burglarized) over the previous 5 years.

They then looked at whether or not these events were associated with body mass index (BMI).

The researchers defined obesity as having a BMI of 30 kilograms per square meter or higher, and 23 percent of the study participants met this definition.

The study revealed that women who experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime were 11 percent more likely to become obese, compared with women who had not experienced any traumatic events.

The risk of becoming obese was 36 percent higher for women who had experienced at least four negative life events in the past 5 years, compared with women who had experienced no negative life events. The more negative life events endured, the higher the obesity risk.

Interestingly, these associations were found to be strongest among women who engaged in higher levels of physical activity, though the team is unable to explain why this is.

Dr. Albert and her colleagues believe that their results indicate that traumatic or stressful events may raise the risk of obesity, and that such events should be taken into consideration when it comes to embarking on weight management interventions.

Our findings suggest that psychological stress in the form of negative and traumatic life events might represent an important risk factor for weight changes and, therefore, we should consider including assessment and treatment of psychosocial stress in approaches to weight management.”

Dr. Michelle A. Albert

The team notes that its study was only able to assess how traumatic and negative life events were associated with weight at one point in time. They say that future studies should how such events impact weight gain over time.