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Is there a link between stress and eating?

You’re feeling stressed and crave something to eat. Not just anything though. A salad won’t do. You want something like a doughnut or chocolate bar. Something packed with sugar or fat for a quick burst of energy and comfort. Is this a one-time thing, or can stress lead to more eating?

Feeling stressed is normal. It’s something all of us go through and likely will go through in the future. In some cases it can be good for us. It can challenge us and help us grow. And short periods of stress aren’t necessarily bad. But ongoing stress, called chronic stress, isn’t good for us. It can affect our mental and physical health, as well as our daily habits such as eating.

Stress can come in many forms. People most commonly associate stress with work, but it can also come from financial struggles, strained relationships, school pressure, and discrimination and bullying.

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The Fight or Flight Response

When we’re stressed, our bodies release two hormones; adrenaline and cortisol. The human body has evolved to see stress as a threat and releases these hormones to help us address that threat. This reaction is referred to as the fight or flight response. Nowadays, however, we don’t usually have the option of fighting or flighting when stress happens.

Adrenaline helps sharpen the senses and gets the body ready for action (such as increasing heart rate and breathing). Cortisol leads to an increase in blood sugar to give you the energy you need to fight or flight response. It also shuts down bodily functions that are not needed such as the gut and the immune system. Once the stress has subsided, levels of adrenaline and cortisol return to normal.

When stress is ongoing, cortisol levels remain high. These high cortisol levels can have a number of detrimental effects on the body such as suppressing the immune system, or increasing your risk for diabetes. It can also change your appetite.


Too much Stress can Lead to More Eating

While cortisol suppresses appetite during short periods of stress, ongoing stress can lead to changes in appetite. When men were injected with cortisol, food intake increased over the four days following. And women who were stressed in a lab setting ate more afterwards. But not all people react to stress by overeating, in some cases appetite might go down.

Regardless of whether you react to stress by over- or undereating, most people will reach for foods high in sugar and fat when stressed. This could be because these foods are highly palatable, or because they’re our comfort foods. It could also be due to the effects of cortisol trying to keep your blood sugar levels high.

Over time, ongoing stress may lead to weight gain. People with high cortisol levels tend to have a greater chance of being obese. And there seems to be a preference for that weight (or more precisely the fat) to accumulate around the waist. People who had higher work stress tend to have more fat around the waist. This is likely due to cortisol increasing the amount of fat around the organs (visceral fat), as people with extremely high levels of cortisol, such as with Cushing Syndrome, have more visceral fat. This is a concern as fat around the organs is more detrimental to health than fat elsewhere on the body.

Managing Stress

Ongoing stress can also affect your sleeping patterns, making it harder to get restful sleep. This can further affect your eating habits. You also might feel more crunched for time and reach for convenience foods, which are predominantly processed foods and also lead to weight gain. And if you’re tired, you may not actually feel like exercising; a key factor in managing stress.

Managing stress beings with taking control of the situation. This may mean removing yourself from the stress, but often that may not be possible. Instead, returning to a balanced life of regular exercise, sufficient sleep, enjoying time with family/friends and meditating can help you cope. This can be a challenge when under constant stress, but even small changes can make a big difference, which in turn makes it easier to make more healthy changes.

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2 responses to “Is there a link between stress and eating?”

  1. Terrific article, Dr. Scott! It reminded me of that old TV series, ‘The Golden Girls’, in which the ‘roommates’ always happened to have an entire cheesecake in the fridge, which they would devour during every middle-of-the-night emotional crisis that seemed to happen in every weekly episode! They would all be stewing over that week’s stressful problem – unable to sleep, as you point out – until they’d end up at the kitchen table in their jammies, sitting around the cheesecake, hashing out the problem until the problem was solved and/ or the cheesecake was gone.

    My own girlfriends and I could ALL relate to that kind of crisis eating… Not one of us have ever experienced an urge to eat broccoli when coping with stress. And although we never did eat an ENTIRE cheesecake during our own stressful times (I don’t think we could have tolerated all that crushing post-cheesecake GUILT!), it sure was what we WANTED to do!

    My friends and I are aware that some people actually lose their appetite when they are stressed, but “I was too upset to eat!” is a statement that we could never personally comprehend! 😉

    Thanks for the stress-busting tips!

    1. Thanks Carolyn. Your story is one we can all relate to, especially when I recall my exam periods at university!

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