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Struggling with your weight? Do something about that burnout



People handle stress in different ways: they might smoke, or drink alcohol, or eat. Women seem especially prone to eating when they're stressed, bored, or lonely. This is called "emotional eating," and as you might imagine, it can really do a number on your ability to control your weight. While there are studies on the effects of emotional eating on weight, none have looked at one particularly common source of stress - occupational burnout - until recently.

Researchers in Finland recruited 230 women from the city employees of their local town (Am J Clin Nutr 2012;95(4):934-43). They were invited to participate in a year-long study that focused on changing health behaviors in those with health risks. These health risks included overweight or obesity, smoking, difficulty sleeping, risky drinking behaviors or not enough exercise.

"Occupational burnout" is the result of "chronic stress caused by job demands exceeding employees' resources for managing their tasks" and includes feelings of "overwhelming exhaustion, cynicism toward work and people related to it, and feelings that one's work has no value."

At the start of the study the women's height, weight and percentage of body fat were measured. They also responded to questionnaires that measured their level of occupational burnout and their tendency towards emotional eating or uncontrolled eating. They were then randomly assigned to one of three groups. Two of the three groups participated in 10 bi-weekly group sessions focused on health assessment, goal setting for changing their behavior and problem-solving skills. One of those groups used pencil and paper to track their exercise, stress levels, eating and sleeping behaviors, and other factors, while the other used an online tool to do the same tracking. The third group, which served as the control group, did not attend group sessions and did no tracking of their behaviors.

At the end of the study, one year later, the researchers again measured the women's height, weight and body fat, and the participants again responded to the burnout and eating behaviors questionnaires. They found that those who were experiencing burnout were more likely to be exhibiting emotional and uncontrolled eating behaviors, although they were no more likely to be overweight or obese.

Those women who did not have burnout at the start of the study but had higher scores on the uncontrolled eating part of the questionnaire seemed to benefit more from the group sessions than those who did have burnout: their uncontrolled eating scores actually fell. The researchers felt that this showed that burnout made it more difficult for women to make changes in their eating behavior.

What this means for you

Experiencing burnout may not directly make you overweight, but it sure won't help if you're trying to manage your weight or lose weight. Further, long-term stress has been associated with abdominal obesity and therefore with higher risk of metabolic syndrome. If you think you're getting burned out, talk to your doctor. They should be able to refer you to resources to help you manage your stress before it negatively affects more than your weight.

First posted: March 21, 2012