The Science Behind Stress Eating (and How to Stop Doing It!)

by | Updated: December 20th, 2017 | Read time: 4 minutes

America, we’re stressed out. We’re stressed about money. We’re stressed about work. We’re stressed about health care. We’re stressed about politics.

In fact, a survey commissioned earlier this year by the American Psychological Association found that although Americans’ stress levels remained consistent from 2016 to 2017, we’re now more likely to report feeling the weight of stress.

Woman Stress Eating Looking in Refrigerator in Middle of Night | Vitacost.com/blog

Unfortunately, the weight of that stress can lead to weight gain. How? “Stress eating” prompts a lot of us to reach for fatty foods like potato chips and sugary foods like ice cream — the types of foods that bring us temporary comfort and can pack on the pounds. Not surprisingly, stress eating has been linked to obesity.

“The pervasive nature of stress is one of the greatest problems in society today. Stress wreaks havoc on your digestion and elimination processes and adds unhealthy, unwanted calories,” says certified health coach and certified nutrition consultant Natalia Levey, author of “Cravings Boss.”

By the way, research shows stress tends to push women toward food and men toward cigarettes or booze.

Regardless of gender, registered dietitian Brittany Stucklen, a nutritionist at Medifast Weight Control Centers of California, says stress eating satisfies emotional needs rather than satisfying actual hunger.

“Once a person gives in to their cravings, their stress seems to be relieved, causing them a certain level of comfort. People become conditioned to stress-eat in order to deal with their feelings,” Stucklen says.

So, what’s the science behind stress eating?

In the short term, stress can curb your appetite, thanks to a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus that pumps out an appetite-suppressing hormone, according to Harvard Medical School. The brain also signals the adrenal glands to crank out a hormone known as epinephrine or adrenaline.

“Epinephrine helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold,” Harvard Medical School explains.

However, the situation is different if the stress lingers, according to Harvard Medical School. In that case, the adrenal glands leap into action to generate a hormone called cortisol. This hormone boosts your appetite and can increase overall motivation, including the motivation to eat.

“Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn’t go away — or if a person’s stress response gets stuck in the ‘on’ position — cortisol may stay elevated,” Harvard Medical School says.

Thus, our desire to eat high-fat and high-sugar foods fails to subside.

What can you do to get out of stress-eating mode? There are plenty of options.

Stucklen recommends identifying what’s triggering the stress and replacing the bad habit — in this instance, scarfing down fatty or sugary foods — with good habits.

“The next time you reach for food, ask yourself if you’re hungry. If the answer is no, take a step back and deal with the root of the problem,” Stucklen says. “Because food is a constant in our daily lives, eating becomes an automatic reaction to suppress emotional distress.”

To combat that automatic reaction, try these healthier behaviors:

  • Listening to music
  • Exercising
  • Praying
  • Meditating
  • Practicing yoga
  • Reading
  • Taking a bath
  • Getting a massage
  • Visiting a mental health professional
  • Shutting out stress-inducing activities, such as watching or reading news

Furthermore, integrative dietitian Maria Zamarripa suggests replacing unhealthy fats with healthy omega-3 fats in your diet to help reduce stress-hormone levels. To achieve the maximum benefit, include fish in at least two meals per week, she says.

“Adding a can of tuna or salmon to a tossed vegetable salad is an easy and quick way to reach this goal,” Zamarripa says.

Also on the food front, Zamarripa points to magnesium as another tool in fighting stress eating. Magnesium, she says, might help balance your body’s production of cortisol. Foods high in magnesium include spinach, pumpkin seeds, almonds, black beans and avocados. 

Holistic nutritionist Veronique Cardon, creator of the CogniDiet weight loss program, advises anyone who’s prone to stress eating to get past this short-term “crutch” in order to address the deep-seated cause of the unhealthy eating pattern. Are you stuck in a miserable relationship? Are you tied down by a job you hate? Are you frustrated by mounting debt?

Whatever the source of the stress is, you can learn to cope with it in a healthy manner or you can even eliminate the source altogether.

“Stress is often caused by a situation that you feel you have no control over,” Cardon says. “Eating when stressed is an action you can supposedly control. You can decide to chew and munch as much as you like. This compensates for the frustration you feel at the situation that is causing the stress.”