The interplay of diet, exercise, and the mind
For women, stresses of middle age can pack on the pounds, study finds
March 03, 2005
USA TODAY

Bruising experiences in middle age -- the cruel boss, ill parents, divorce -- cause women to gain weight, and it's not just because they eat more or exercise less, a large study reports today.

"Under stress, people conserve more fat, and we think that may be what's going on here," says psychologist Ten Lewis of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. She and co-author Lynda Powell are expected to report findings from the Study of Women's Health Across the Nation (SWAN) at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting in Vancouver, B.C.

The study tracks the health and mental health of premenopausal women from their 40s through menopause. Researchers asked more than 2,000 women about unhappy life events they had experienced in the past year. They also gathered information on diets, exercise habits, smoking and menstrual periods.

But even after taking into account many factors that could influence weight, four years later the women who faced lots of stress weighed significantly more than the less stressed. The more bad things they reported in the year before the study, the more weight they had gained over the four years, the researchers found.

That doesn't mean diet or exercise don't matter, Lewis says. But the link between personal trouble and weight gain held for all middle-aged women, regardless of race, income and education.

Stress may be particularly lethal for women after menopause, says psychologist Elissa Epel of University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine.

Epel's earlier research showed that younger women with a large proportion of their fat in the abdomen area had more chronic life stress than women who put on weight at the hips, which is less dangerous to the heart.

Estrogen causes more fat to be stored in the hips, Epel says. And when women's estrogen levels plunge after menopause, "it's a double whammy, because they not only gain, but they gain in a more dangerous place. They go toward the male pattern in fat-storing."

Diet also probably played a role in putting on the weight, Epel says. "You just don't crave carrots when you're stressed. You want comfort foods that are high in fat and sugar."

Women can't control many typical midlife stressors, such as ailing parents, she adds. But building strong friendships and developing new goals and priorities often can help curb stress, Epel says.

Exercise also is a great stress reliever, Lewis says, "and it helps you lose weight, so it's a two-for-one. But whatever relaxation techniques work for you and improve your mood, those are the ones to do at this time of life."