- Most people use food to handle negative emotions and stressful life events.
- When stress doesn’t let up, food cravings for unhealthy foods are usually triggered, prompting people to overeat and gain weight.
- Physical inactivity, poor sleep quality, and other unhealthy habits also play a role.
Stress eating, also called emotional eating, is an eating pattern where people turn to food to help them cope with stressful situations. On a 10-pt. scale, one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8, as per a survey by the American Psychological Association.
How does stress affect your appetite and hormones?
Initially, stress temporarily decreases appetite to allow the body to deal with the situation. The hormone epinephrine (also called adrenaline), which is released by the adrenal glands, prepares the body to shift to a fight-or-flight response to stress that temporarily halts eating. But when stress becomes chronic, another hormone called cortisol is released. High cortisol levels ramp up appetite, pushing people to overeat.
Physical or emotional distress, as shown in numerous studies on animals, heightens food cravings for sugary and fatty foods. High cortisol levels from stress, along with high insulin levels, may be the culprit. Stress is also found by research to be linked with increased hunger hormones called ghrelin, which may also boost craving for unhealthy foods. These foods, which are actually “comfort foods,” seem to counteract stress when consumed, thus, motivating people to eat more.
However, overeating isn’t the only stress-induced behavior that can cause weight gain. Poor sleep, less exercise, and high alcohol intake all contribute to weight gain.
Why do people succumb to stress eating?
According to some research, women are more likely to use food to deal with stress than men are, and more men are more likely than women to smoke or use alcohol. A study in Finland that involved over 5,000 men and women, suggested that obesity was related to stress-related eating in women only.
Work-related stress and other problems are also found by a Harvard study to be associated with weight gain, but was only noted among those who were overweight at the start of the study period. One theory behind this may be because overweight people have elevated insulin levels where stress-related weight gain is more likely to happen.
Another factor may be the amount of cortisol produced by people in response to stress. Based on a 2007 British study, people with high cortisol levels were more likely to eat in response to daily stress than individuals with low-cortisol levels.
Strategies to Counter Stress Without Overeating
When stress impacts your quality of life, health, and weight, the first step you should do is stop keeping “comfort foods” handy by emptying your refrigerator and pantry of all unhealthy foods — especially those that are high-fat and sugary. Then, practice the following:
1. Mindfulness Meditation
Mindless eating means eating without paying attention to or enjoying what they are eating. But with mindful meditation, people may become more aware of what they eat. Over time, with practice, an individual may be able to scale down emotional eating and cut down binge eating episodes.
2. Regular Exercise
Studies suggest that by making the body stronger and healthier, exercise helps improve the body’s ability to respond to stress. It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you do, just find something you enjoy doing. Yoga and tai chi, which have both exercise and meditation elements, can thwart the many negative effects of anxiety and depression.
3. Seek social support
People who get adequate social support from friends and loved ones seem to get less affected by negative life events. In fact, research suggests that better mental and emotional health have been reported by people working in stressful environments who are surrounded by family and friends.