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: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/size-matters-the-sequel/

©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: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/my-books-and-reviews-2018/

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