Can practicing medicine make you gain weight?

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published March 4, 2020

Key Takeaways

The practice of medicine these days is, in itself, not healthy. Long hours. High stress. Constant pressure. Hurried decisions. And not enough time for refreshing sleep, adequate exercise, or healthy eating. All of these factors can not only have deleterious effects on a physician’s mental health—in terms of burnout—but also on their physical health—in terms of high blood pressure, headaches, and extra weight. 

That last effect—extra weight—is often left unaddressed. Unlike high blood pressure and headaches, there’s no simple pill or potion for effectively treating excess weight. And, it’s a big problem, even in healthy-minded people like physicians. At last count in 2004, about 44% of male US doctors were found to be overweight (BMI: 25.0–29.9 kg/m²) and 6% were obese (BMI: 30 kg/m² or higher). 

Sure, that’s better than the general public, of whom about 66% were overweight and 32% were obese in 2004. But, for physicians, who are held to a higher standard, those numbers are still too high. 

Weight from stress

Much of that weight gain can likely be chalked up to stress. 

“Stress influences our eating habits,” according to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America report. “People tend to seek high-calorie, high-fat foods during periods of stress, though in fact, when people are stressed, their bodies store more fat than when they are relaxed.”

According to the report, many adults admitted to engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors as a result of stress:

  • 27% of adults said they eat to manage stress. 

  • 38% said they overate or ate unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress. Of these, 49% reported doing so weekly or more.

  • 33% who reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods said they did so to help distract themselves from stress. 

  • 30% reported skipping a meal due to stress in the past month. Of these, 41% reported doing it weekly or more. 

  • 67% who reported skipping meals due to stress attributed it to lack of appetite, while about one-fourth (26%) said they skipped a meal because they didn’t have time to eat.

  • After having overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods, 36% said they felt sluggish or lazy, 46% reported feeling bad about their bodies, and 49% reported feeling disappointed in themselves.

Added weight from work-related stress

Stress from work affects our daily lives. One of four (25%) full-time workers said that work-related stress changes their personal eating habits, according to another survey, Stress Eating: Examining Our Job’s Influence on Our Personal Diet, conducted by The authors surveyed 946 full-time employees to find out how their work affected their eating habits. 

“It’s common for people to use food as a coping mechanism, eating more or less than they should when they are emotional about a situation,” explained the authors of the report.

According to the survey results, nearly 24% of respondents reported putting on weight due to unhealthy eating habits brought on by work-related stress. On average, respondents gained 4.8 lb in the past month due to poor eating habits. 

“Feeling pressure from your boss, managing a complicated project, juggling too many tasks at once, or not being taken seriously by your co-workers—these are stressful situations that can trigger emotional eating, and that emotional eating can trigger weight gain,” the authors wrote. 

For physicians, this domino effect of pressure and overeating can result from overbooked patient scheduling, managing difficult diagnoses, or dealing with EHRs and administrative burdens.

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

What did the respondents eat when they were stressed from work? About 47% reported eating more sugary food, nearly 39% ate more fatty foods, and 43% reported overeating in general.

“More women [31%] than men [21%] changed their eating habits because of work stress, with stress causing them to eat more sugary, fatty, and high-calorie foods, eat too much, or abstain from eating at all,” explained the authors of the report. “This could be because women experience higher levels of stress in the workplace, possibly due to feeling overwhelmed or pressured from their workload.”

The high cost of stress eating

But that’s not all—26% of employees reported spending more money on food due to work-related stress. 

“Emotional eating can lead to overeating during stressful periods, which not only results in consuming extra calories but also increased spending,” the authors wrote.

Respondents who reported working in a stressful environment spent an average of $468 more on food per year. Those whose eating habits were affected by work-related stress spent an average of $780 more on food per year. 

“This includes everything from groceries and restaurant meals to fast food and snacks—most likely, money spent on food they aren’t physically hungry for,” the authors wrote. 

How to avoid stress eating

Even though stress can tempt us to eat more and spend more, there are ways to fight it. 

  • Resist temptation. Don’t keep sugary or high-fat foods in your desk drawers or cabinets. Avoid vending machines, which are often stocked with unhealthy snacks like chips, cookies, and cakes. Beware that temptation is at its greatest in the late afternoon/early evening. That’s when hunger hormone levels rise and satiety hormone levels drop—and stress only makes things worse, according to researchers

  • Meditate. Meditation can reduce stress and may increase mindfulness, so you’ll be able to be more aware of the temptation to grab a Snickers bar, and nip it—the temptation, not the Snickers—in the bud.

  • Exercise. Exercise is a great stress reliever. Instead of reaching for the Doritos, reach for your running shoes.  

  • Get by with a little help from your friends. Friends, family, and other sources of social support can mitigate the effects of stress you may feel. Also, there’s strength in numbers; recruit your coworkers to join you in battling stress eating together. 

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