Smorgasbord Health Column – Size Matters – The Sequel – #Obesity – Change and #Stress Reaction by Sally Cronin

When I wrote the original Size Matters at age forty-three I recognised I had lived an unusually nomadic life. I wrote about my childhood and the constant moving around with my father who was in the Royal Navy that continued throughout my first marriage and up to that point in 1996. To be honest little has changed since then.

Over the last twenty years I have worked with hundreds of clients, and one of the key sections in the comprehensive questionnaire that I asked them to complete, was on the changes in their lives that they felt had impacted them significantly, particularly those as a child.

These changes might have involved moving home frequently, family disruption, health and life-changing trauma. And it was interesting to see, that whilst some of these changes might have taken place to anyone of us at some point, when it occurs in childhood, it impacts that essential sense of security that we need at that vulnerable age.  I was surprised how vivid some of these memories were in most of the adults who had weight issues, and there seemed to be a strong connection to one form of eating disorder or the other. Including anorexia as opposed to overeating.

When I first explored this concept with regard to my own obesity, it contradicted one of my personality traits that people often commented on. My positive attitude to life and its ups and downs, and my ability to make fun of myself and things that happened to me. But perhaps that was a coping mechanism, and internally, my body was reacting in a very different way. With a stress reaction.

Before I take a closer look at the  two main forms of stress and the way they impact the body, I am going to share a chronological list of the changes in my life up to the age of fourteen, when I was already having issues with my weight. If you have had weight issues since childhood or your teens then you might find it interesting to do a similar list.

I firmly believe that obesity, especially when it becomes morbid obesity, has its roots in a number of elements apart from overeating. Just reviewing a food diary from a two week snapshot, is not enough information to identify the root cause of an eating disorder such as obesity, and is another reason I am not keen on crash or fad diets. They might temporarily reduce the intake of food but if the underlying reason for weight gain is not identified and addressed, the weight will simply come back again and again.

As I will be looking at physical and emotional changes in our lives that might contribute to an eating disorder, this list below is simply the environmental changes in my life until I was fourteen.

  1. We move to Sri Lanka in 1954 when I am 18 months until three and a half years old with my family.
  2. Back to England in 1956 move from home in country to new house in city and first school at four years old in 1957
  3. Go to Malta 1959 age six to a new school for two years.
  4. Return to the UK in 1961 back to new school for two years.
  5. Go to South Africa 1963 age ten and go to new school, new language, new curriculum – take entrance exams for secondary school in UK.
  6. Return to UK 1965 and start secondary school in Lancashire, a year behind at twelve years old, but put into 2nd year anyway, without first year French, Latin, English Literature, English Language, history or Geography.
  7. At fourteen in 1967 we move to the south of England and I start new school with different curriculum two years before O’Level exams.

That is the bare bones of it, and as I look back, I recognise that whilst there was excitement, a sense of adventure and privilege in traveling so extensively as a child. Each time we moved, it meant leaving all my friends behind, and starting all over again in a new place, environment, culture and sometimes language. Of course my family, particularly my two older sisters until they left home when I was seven year’s old, provided a support system. However, I am aware that by the time we went to South Africa at ten years old, I had already become quite a loner, and whilst I would have classmates, I don’t recall special friends. After all, I knew that I would be leaving them behind in two years. My weight at this time began to be a concern as found comfort in food and buried my nose in books. It led me to consider the fact that I was suffering from chronic stress and my body’s natural reaction was contributing to the weight gain.

What causes a stress reaction?

Stress is the modern day equivalent of our ancestral ‘fight or flight’ mechanism that was necessary in the highly competitive and predatory world throughout our evolution. There may no longer be cave lions or mammoths in our world but the modern day alternatives can be just as daunting.

A threatening or tense situation triggers this stress response demanding that we take physical action. Unfortunately most modern day stress involves situations that we cannot run away from such as relationship issues, a demanding job and boss, financial worries and traffic jams on the way home. This is particularly the case as a young child, since you are usually unable to leave the family unit, but which might explain the high number of teenage runaways.

There are two types of stress. Acute and Chronic stress and both have very distinctive patterns.

Acute stress is a short-term response by the body’s sympathetic nervous system and the response may only last for a few minutes, days or a few weeks. How many times have you said that your heart stopped or your stomach lurched during a moment of intense stress such as an accident? We have all heard stories of mothers and fathers who have been suddenly infused with superhuman strength and able to lift cars and other heavy objects off their trapped children. They are empowered to do this by the actions of their body in a moment of crisis.

Blood sugar levels rise and additional red blood cells are released to carry strength giving oxygen levels a boost. The pulse quickens, blood pressure rises and the digestive process stops to enable the focus to be entirely on regaining safety.

Chronic Stress is when this acute stress response is repeated on a continuous basis. Whilst the human body, after a few hundred thousand years, is well able to handle the occasional stress response, and in fact uses it positively, if the response becomes a normal way of life, other parts of the brain and body become involved leading to long term damage.

For example on-going stress causes the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland that are the master controllers for the body to release a chemical called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) which stimulates the adrenal gland to produce and release cortisol which disrupts sleep patterns leading to increased levels of stress. Our bodies are simply not designed to live at high alert for sustained periods of time; it just wears it down leading to illness.

Symptoms of stress can be subtle such as fatigue, insomnia, depression, headaches, back or neck pain, irritability and sudden weight loss or gain. The less common but more damaging are heart palpitations, shortness of breath, diarrhoea, nausea, panic attacks, inability to concentrate and chronic fear. If not controlled stress leads to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and ulcers. Mental health is also affected as people struggle to contain what is essentially a heightened sense of fear.

How does this influence weight loss and gain?

I understand after all these years, that my relationship with food has always been dependent on my stress levels. It is learned behaviour. As a child our parents or older family members did not just reward us with sweets and food if we had been good. They would also indulge us if we skinned our knees, banged our heads, were frightened by next door’s dog, and had an earache. How many of us have run off, lost sight of our mother or father, been in panic mode, been found and given a great big hug, lots of attention even if it meant being scolded, everybody so happy to see you. “Come on we will all have an ice-cream. That will make it feel better”. How many times have we seen the toddler, working up a head of steam, stamping feet, getting red in the face being appeased by a cuddle and some food?

Once we become old enough to make our own decisions about food that we eat, especially outside of meal times, we develop our own reward system for a good or bad day. When under chronic stress this can turn into a dependency on food, providing us with a constant factor in our lives whatever else is going on.

What I want to illustrate is that we are not just at the mercy of outside stress, we also are quite capable of working ourselves up into a frenzy and creating a physical response that activates all the same reactions. The expression “worrying myself to death” is firmly established in our modern language.

If you are mentally, physically and emotionally under pressure, being concerned about the food you are putting in your mouth seems to take a back seat. Just give me chocolate!

The hormone response to stress.

When hormones like cortisol, which have normal, daily functions in the body are being secreted all the time, your maintenance systems are affected. Cortisol should be at different levels at certain times of the day – highest in the morning and lowest last thing at night. This makes sense as it helps maintain a healthy blood pressure, raising it early in the morning as you wake up and decreasing it as you go to sleep.

You can imagine how confused the body is going to get, if you are pumping cortisol into the system at increased levels throughout the day in response to your stress. Cortisol is also necessary for metabolism or the fats and carbohydrates that we eat for that fast hit of energy, and also the management of insulin and blood sugar levels.

We have all experienced a sugar high we get after eating too many sweet foods, and then the sudden drop that urges us to consume even more of the nectar…. And that is why diving into the chocolate biscuits or the tub of ice-cream when stressed is so predictable. Particular if this has been your learned response since childhood.

As I mentioned earlier during a stress response the digestive process stops. That may be fine for an hour or two, but if you are stressed the whole time, you are not going to be able to process any healthy foods that you do eat efficiently.

Long term this can lead to nutritional deficiency syndrome that encourages your body to store rather that utilise fat.

Where did my life go after the age of fourteen?

The last fifty-two years have shown little change to my nomadic childhood and early teens. I have moved physically twenty-five times in seven countries, learned two more languages and left far too many friends behind. There have also been some interesting physical and emotional challenges that I will look at in following chapters as they also add to overall stress, and have a bearing on my ability to put on weight and keep it on.

I hope that this has given you something to think about… If you have a weight issue that never seems to be resolved, then I suggest you spend time looking at your childhood and the changes over the first 14 or 15 years, pinpointing key events that might have created a stress response and a dependency on food.

You can find the previous posts in this series in this directory:

©sally cronin Just Food for Health 1998 – 2019

A little bit about me nutritionally.

I am a qualified nutritional therapist with over twenty years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines and posts here on Smorgasbord.

If you would like to browse by health books and fiction you can find them here:

 If you have any questions then please do not hesitate to ask in the comments.. or if you prefer send in an email to







44 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Health Column – Size Matters – The Sequel – #Obesity – Change and #Stress Reaction by Sally Cronin

  1. Stress comes in so many guises that it is often difficult to pinpoint or accept…Maybe therapy sessions should be a part of a curriculum or maybe that would just cause something which wouldn’t have been there…A hard one isn’t it? Good post-Sally 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Smorgasbord Health Column – Size Matters – The Sequel – #Obesity – Change and #Stress Reaction by Sally Cronin | Campbells World

  3. Hi Sally and all.
    I found reading this so very helpful. I realized so much about myself as I read and I do feel it does help to identify the why and how of my problems to better figure out how to solve them. Thanks so much for this post. Your honesty and openness is so very much appreciated by me.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Fascinating subject Sally, thank you.Although food rationing probably helped me stay slim….during the war years,I attended seven different schools and was evacuated three times – twice to Wales and once to Derbyshire, which entailed a huge amount of time travelling to and from my home when there were lulls in the bombing…Outwardly, this seemed to make me self-reliant and I’d later travel anywhere, by any means and was daring at the fair, BUT in my fifties I suffered from Agoraphobia for quite a time and have always wondered why?! Brought up to be stoic, perhaps earlier, restrained fears suddenly emerged? Fortunately, I recovered, but the experience was truly , horrible. A plus though, it made me an empath for we never know what’s behind a tentative smile, do we? Hugs. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi.

      Interesting. I too moved a lot during my tween and teen years. Though my home remained in one place, I went back and forth from home to the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville TN. Which was 300.5 miles from my home in Kingsport TN. I lived at the school part of the time and at home part of the time. Living in the dorm was all by itself at times difficult and extremely stressful.

      But, rather than requiring me to do one or the other, whenever things got tough for me I would revert back to public school. All that moving around and not learning to tough out hard situations, combined with problems within my family caused a ton of stress in my world from a very early age.

      My mother had chronic illness, my father worked a lot which left my sisters and me on our own much of the time.

      Then I developed Bipolar Disorder and my weight has been like a Yoyo for years.

      Now, thanks to this writing Sally is sharing with us I’m beginning a new journey and hope that I can be successful.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Today is a wonderful example of finding great ways to cope.

        The sun came out, temps warmed, and I decided to see if King Campbell might want to try getting into his harness and go for a walk.

        He did and it was a joy to see him so filled with life. He too has had to make changes in his eating habits, and way of life, and I saw a great transformation begin to take shape for the both of us today as a result of the changes we’re making.

        We stayed out for nearly an hour, walked a bit and stopped to chat with others who were out enjoying this break in the weather.

        When we got back I squashed the craving for sweets and drank water instead.

        I wonder how many times we think we’re hungry when really our bodies are dehydrated? Seemed as though the need to eat junk went away after I’d had the water.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been drinking lots more water since reading your health column.

        I know I need to. Have had horrid issues with kidneys over the years, but bad habits form and stick so much more quickly than the good.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing Joy and it just shows that this is not uncommon.. It does make you self-reliant and on the surface fearless. I am still when the need arises but I much prefer to sail along on an even keel, at the helm. But I do also think that it makes you more sensitive to heightened emotion in others. Counseling people over the years reinforced my own discoveries and it also made me realise how brave people are when they struggle to manage their lives. hugs xxx


    • Hi Butterfly.

      I will find and follow you and see what you wrote.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting.

      I understand your addiction to sweet. I deal with it every-day.

      Hardest thing for me right now has been giving up flavored creams for my coffee.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It made me very adaptable too Robbie. And that is a good thing in many respects, but it also made me obsessive. And if I was going to do something it would be to the extreme, eating, dieting, exercise as examples. I became a workaholic and still am to an extent. All of the above was my choice and that was my way of keeping control however many times I moved, they were the constants. xx

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am also an obsessive workaholic, Sally. I spent 5 hours today working on editing and re-writing my new story called A ghost and his gold. It includes a lot of history about the Second Boer War so the research is time consuming. I spent the rest of the day reading blogs, helping my boys prepare their weekend homework assignments for tomorrow and I spent one hour talking to my aunt who is recovering from a hip replacement at my house (in my parent’s cottage). A perfect day for me [smile]

        Liked by 1 person

      • Me too Robbie.. we did go shopping this morning an hour away but we don’t have weekends as such.. I have cut back a bit at the weekend but if not online I am writing.. I would be bored witless without it… and I think that is the flip side.. a very small boredom threshold.. have to be doing something.. hugs

        Liked by 1 person

  5. A most interesting post, Sally! I definitely believe that everything that happens in life shapes us and how we internalize those events often have much more impact than the event itself. Thank you for addressing this in such a positive way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Jan. It took me a long time to identify and address my behaviour with regard to not just my body and health but also relationships. What is interesting is that I have no such inhibitions about forming online friendships and relationships which in a fact that does relate to children and teenagers in particular today. They have different stressers to deal with but this is also what makes them so vulnerable online to those who play on their insecurities. xxx


  6. Sal, all your points are bang on. All of our habits evolve with our childhoods and forward. And holy cow, I thought I moved a lot. I commend you for getting through childhood, especially with language barriers. Look at you now! ❤ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Weekly Round Up – Gardening, Farm antics, #Numerology and Apricots…guests, music and humour | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  8. So informative and emcompassing Sally. People canot look at their lifestyle and choices as only having an impact in one area, we are whole beings and there for each thing exexperience affects the whole and the whole needs to be considered when tackling one problem area. Pxx

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for your insights and your interesting reflection. I always noticed changes to my weight when I started a new job or took up studying, and yes, moved (everything usually went together), although I thought it was related to changes in the level of activity, but you’ve made me think again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really think that the majority of modern diseases have a strong stress link and that we are creating the next generation of incapacitated adults with far more lifestyle related health issues. That is why two weeks in the sun, swimming, reading, playing and getting vitamin D makes such a difference to us all. We just have to learn to build in de-stressing strategies more often. hugsx


  10. Pingback: Healthy Eating…No more diets! | Retired? No one told me!

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