Wellness Tips: Why You Eat (or Don’t) When You’re Stressed

Why does stress affect my appetite so dramatically?

Have you ever been up against a major deadline and “accidentally” finished an entire bag of chips or box of cookies? Or alternatively, so focused on working on that project that you completely forgot to eat?

The way we handle stress varies from one person to another: some people thrive in stressful environments and others shut down. Likewise, our eating habits and appetite can be affected differently. Whether you reach for food or lose your appetite when stressed, you’re not alone, and science tells us both are a real response.

Stress is your body’s normal response to external stimuli. Stress can be short-lived, like being late for an important meeting or longer-term, like ongoing financial troubles or working with a difficult manager. Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones that have both mental and physical effects. In acute stress situations, like taking an exam or public speaking, the body signals the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine. Epinephrine triggers a “fight or flight” response, a pepped-up physiological reaction that temporarily puts your appetite on hold.

However, if levels stay high longer-term, due to ongoing stressors, the body also then releases cortisol, which may cause your appetite to increase and block feelings of satiety or fullness. While cortisol causes some people lose their appetite, high levels from extended periods of stress have been shown to trigger your digestive system to release ghrelin, the “hunger hormone” that tells your body it’s time to eat. This response makes reaching for that piece of pizza or bar of chocolate particularly appealing, as choosing fat and sugar-laden foods can temporarily soothe the high-cortisol response. Most people’s cortisol levels return to normal after the stressful event is over, but studies suggest that some people are more likely to reach for food in response to daily hassles like sitting in a traffic jam, because persistent stress has conditioned their bodies to release cortisol in everyday situations. This is why you might find yourself mindlessly reaching for a donut (or three) when you are prepping for a big presentation.

But here’s the thing: while eating a piece of cake when you’re stressed may make you temporarily feel better, it’s a fleeting solution. To take control of stress-induced eating, do the following:

  1. Before reaching for that snack, stop and tune into your body to determine if you’re truly hungry. Signs of hunger not only include a grumbling or empty-feeling stomach, but also feelings of lightheadedness, inability to concentrate, or irritability.
  2. If you truly are hungry, eat mindfully. That means stepping away from your computer, TV, phone, or out of your car and focusing entirely on what you’re eating. You will likely find that you’re satisfied faster with less.
  3. Choose foods that will combat hunger and stabilize your blood sugar to temper the stress. Protein, fiber, and healthy fats can help achieve this, so try something like an apple with nut butter, a hard-boiled egg with string cheese, or a cup of vegetables with hummus.

Over- or under-eating is not the only response our bodies have to stress. People with high stress levels also exercise less, sleep less, and tend to drink more alcohol. For this reason, learning a few stress-management techniques that work for you such as exercise, deep breathing, or getting outside in nature is important for not only your waistline, but your overall well-being.

 

At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to nutrition@cafebonappetit.com.