Why Stress Causes Us to Overeat

by Susan Andrews, PhD

Researchers have long linked weight gain to stress, and according to an American Psychological Association survey, about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale. Stress eating or “emotional eating” seems to be triggered almost automatically when stressed. A 2010 study from the University of Michigan indicated that when levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, are up because you are stressed, you eat more snack foods.

We increase fat, salt, sugar, and caffeine intake. • We skip meals regularly. • We eat more fast food, mindlessly munching. • We tend to seek out foods that we consider “comfort food.” • We drink less water. • We may drink more alcohol. • And, some who still smoke, will smoke more cigarettes.

Stress does not always cause us to overeat or to eat more high-fat, sugary comfort-foods. The first reaction of our brain and body to high stress is to shut down appetite. The hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses appetite. The brain then sends a message to the adrenal glands to release epinephrine or adrenaline. This triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response and – once again – eating is put on hold.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, this does not last if the stress persists, then the adrenal glands release cortisol. Cortisol immediately increases your appetite. As long as the cortisol levels remain elevated, the fat and sugar cravings continue.

Women are more likely than men to turn to food, while men are more likely to turn to alcohol and smoking. In 2007, an ingenious study in Britain showed that people who responded to stress with high cortisol levels were more likely to snack in response to daily hassles in their regular lives than low cortisol responders.

WebMD offers some interesting thoughts on breaking the stress eating cycle and enjoy a healthy diet.

  • Prepare your brain and body in advance of a known period of stress and you will be better able to handle stress when it happens. Keep your emotions in better balance by eating regularly every four or five hours.
  • Eat Complex Carbohydrates, like oatmeal, bran, brown rice, vegetables, beans, and fruits. Complex carbs help your brain synthesize serotonin.
  • Eat healthy fats, like avocado, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, nut butters, and olive oil.
  • Recognize the stressful event or thoughts that trigger the urge to eat. Stop first and decide if you are really hungry. Remind yourself when you last ate.
  • Try a little Mindfulness.
  • Always keep healthy snacks available wherever you go. Small packets of nuts or trail mix. • Eat good protein in the morning and complex carbs during the day.
  • Please do not forget your small piece of dark chocolate (72% cocoa is good).
  • Have cut up celery and carrots in the refrigerator.
  • Avoid driving or walking past snacks and vending machines.
  • Put that music on and do some breathing!


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