The Science Behind Stress and Eating

stresseating Oct 29, 2020

Life can be stressful. And how do we deal with stress? We eat….well, many of us do. Food can be a comforting tool, to momentarily slide that stress away and make us feel better. But why do we do this? And what impact does this have on our long-term health? Today, we’ll explore these questions by firstly explaining the stress response.


The stress response

When we feel stressed out, our body produces a hormone known as cortisol. Cortisol interacts with the appetite-regulating hormone, leptin. Leptin is responsible for suppressing our appetite after we’ve had a feed.


Chronic stress can elevate cortisol and block the effects of leptin. This means that a person is more likely to overeat and feel hungry all the time. Other implications include an increased risk of chronic disease development, like cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes.


So why do we stress eat?

Eating food can dampen our stress response by eliciting positive psychological responses. We tend to opt for more palatable foods, like those that are sugary and fatty. Sugary and fatty foods trigger a strong psychological response, which help to calm our minds. The brain has sneakily been hardwired to favour calories as a survival mechanism. This is because the brain equates calories to a quick source of energy AND a speedy recovery. Back in the day, it was advantageous to have a rapid source of energy. Say, if a sabre tooth tiger was chasing us, or we needed fast-acting energy to recover from such an experience. These days such incidents are a rarity…


Therefore, if we continuously gorge on energy-dense, nutrient-poor food it becomes problematic. Foods that are highly palatable and consumed in excess will generally lead to weight gain and unfavourable health outcomes, like diabetes or cardiovascular disease.



Strategies to manage stress  

So what can we do to avoid overeating and manage our stress levels? 

  1. Remove food temptations. It’s time to clear out the pantry and rid yourself from ‘food baggage’. This food baggage includes lollies, chocolate, chips, cake, biscuits…you name it. Anything that’s going to spiral you into a stress-induced binge.  
  2. Exercise. This is a FANTASTIC strategy to reduce stress, as physical activity helps to release endorphins.
  3. Socialise. Hang out with your family members, ring a friend, create a group ‘Zoom’ session, play with your puppy... Activities that involve connection are fabulous at reducing stress and putting situations into perspective.
  4. Distract yourself. Read a book, watch a movie or take a bath. Switching your mindset and focusing on another activity can calm your nervous system, resulting in reduced stress levels.

If you would like to discuss this topic further contact us at CQ Nutrition. The friendly dietetic team will be able to assess your individual situation and help you overcome stress-induced eating.  

Here is a link to book in with one of our expert dietitians at any of our locations https://www.cqnutrition.com.au/booking/ 

Want an online consultation? Book in on my calendar and in comments write online: https://bit.ly/AnnieROK 

Written by Annabel Johnston, BAppSc&MDietPrac


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