The science behind stress eating: Why physical and emotional stress makes us crave high-sugar, high-fat foods or both

If stress lasts for a longer duration the adrenal glands release cortisol which stimulates hunger and increases food cravings.

Myupchar September 18, 2019 16:17:49 IST
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The science behind stress eating: Why physical and emotional stress makes us crave high-sugar, high-fat foods or both
  • When we are stressed, the body releases hormones which influence our behaviour and food choices

  • During a brief period of stress the adrenal glands release adrenaline which kills our appetite in the short-term

  • If stress lasts for a longer duration the same adrenal glands release cortisol which stimulates hunger and increases food cravings

In her classic 1986 novel Heartburn, Nora Ephron wrote: “Nothing like mashed potatoes when you’re feeling blue. Nothing like getting into bed with a bowl of hot mashed potatoes already loaded with butter, and methodically adding a thin cold slice of butter to every forkful... Of course, you can always get someone to make mashed potatoes for you, but let’s face it: the reason you are blue is that there isn’t anyone to make them for you.”

Ephron was, of course, talking about the deep connection between food and emotion that makes rich food such a good pick-me-up after a bad fight with your partner.

The science behind stress eating Why physical and emotional stress makes us crave highsugar highfat foods or both

Representational image. Image by MikesPhotos from Pixabay

We’ve all been there, done that: sometimes eating a whole bar of chocolate to get over love lost and at other times going through a whole tin of biscuits. Unchecked, however, this innocent pick-me-up can turn into a habit of stress-eating. Here’s a quick look at the science behind the link between emotions and eating.

Hormonal connection

No amount of empathy can do what a tub of ice cream or a cup of hot chocolate can do for a stress-eater. Yes, emotional eating is real. And we do it whenever we feel low, bored or stressed.

When we are stressed, the body releases hormones which influence our behaviour and food choices.

During a brief period of stress — say, just before making a public speech — the adrenal glands release adrenaline which kills our appetite in the short-term. However, if the stress lasts for a longer duration — say, in students who are writing exams over a few weeks — the same adrenal glands release cortisol (also known as the stress hormone) which stimulates hunger and increases food cravings.

The adrenal glands are perched just above each kidney, and they alter how much energy goes to which part of the body in stressful, fight-or-flight situations.

According to medical practitioners, ghrelin, also known as the hunger hormone, may also have a role to play to stress eating. Our gut (stomach as well as the small intestine) releases ghrelin to tell the brain that we are hungry and should eat something.

Sugar, please

You will never see a person under stress having four chappatis instead of two or two bowls of rice instead of one. Research shows that physical and emotional stress makes us crave high-sugar, high-fat foods or both. (To be sure, so far, this research has been done on animal models in laboratory conditions.) The reason behind this is still not clear.

Researchers surmise that after we are full and satisfied, the fat- or sugar-rich foods possibly send feedback to the brain, which in turn drops the level of stress and emotional burden - hence the “foods” are known as comfort foods.

The downside is that sugar-rich foods cause a spike in our blood sugar. The body produces insulin to mop up the extra blood sugar. When blood sugar drops, we crave more sugar - potentially starting a vicious cycle.

Too often, people who indulge in stress-eating gain weight. However, emotional eating is not the only reason why a band of fat accumulates on the bellies of most people with stressful lives. People who are stressed can also experience inadequate sleep, lack of exercise and increased alcohol consumption - which also play their part in weight gain.

To-do list

Of course, stress-eating is not a healthy behavioural pattern. Emotional eating is not a permanent fix, therefore, rather than eating fat- and sugar-rich foods as a stress buster, we can make a conscious choice to pick other alternatives such as:

  • Meditate: It aligns the heart, body and soul, thereby relieving stress. This can also help us to make better food choices
  • Exercise: Forms like tai chi and yoga can help us beat stress. However, the level of cortisol fluctuates as per the intensity and duration of exercise
  • Emotional support: Human to human connection helps. If you see someone “stress eating”, show some love, care and support to make them feel better (keep in mind that body-shaming never helped anyone). And if you are the one falling prey to stress-eating behaviour, speak to a loved one or a doctor - they can help you find a better way to cope with the stress.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. For more on this topic, please read our article on Binge Eating.

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