Why is it so hard to resist stress-eating?
Headaches, fatigue, irritability, anxiety – many of us know the signs of stress all too well. But, says one psychiatrist, stress often triggers curious appetite changes, too. “At first, high stress will increase the release of adrenaline, which can decrease your desire to eat,” explains Dr Gail Saltz, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio. But when stress lingers, your adrenal glands start pumping out cortisol – the hormone responsible for our body’s fight-or-flight responses. Dr Saltz explains this increases your body’s energy demands, causing your appetite to spike, and prompting cravings for high-sugar and high-fat foods.
Even so, the emotional component behind stress-eating can make it tough to just stop when you know you should. “For many of us, we grew up learning that food is a source of comfort,” says Elise Museles, an eating psychology and nutrition expert and wellness ambassador for Nature Made vitamins and supplements. So even if we’re not physically hungry, it’s common to turn to food to deal with overwhelming feelings, distract from anxious thoughts, and create a sense of soothing and relaxation.
What happens when you eat while you’re stressed?
One of the more obvious reasons stress-eating is problematic is that stress can affect what you choose to eat. As Dr Saltz points out, cortisol motivates us to seek out foods high in fats and sugars, which is why it’s so easy – and satisfying – to mindlessly munch on junk food when a huge deadline is looming or something personal is weighing on your heart.
However, stress also triggers physiological changes in your body. These processes can amplify the negative effects of emotional eating and lead to some generally dreaded feelings – both physical and psychological.
Stress-eating can lead to weight gain
Here’s what’s interesting: it’s not only what you choose to eat that can lead to unwanted weight gain. Even if you eat relatively healthy foods when you’re stressed, multiple studies have found that cortisol slows down the body’s metabolism. This means we hold onto more energy in the form of kilojoules, which makes it harder to lose weight.
Additionally, one 2014 study published in Biological Psychiatry found that stress can increase our body’s insulin levels, which contributes to greater fat storage.