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Stress eating: Why you crave food during stress & how to stop

stress eating

Why do I overeat and gain weight when stressed? Emotional eating

Stress eating or emotional eating is a thing. The hormones chronic stress releases push people to crave high-calorie, sugary foods, aka "comfort foods," leading to weight gain. Also, the combination of stress and calorie-dense foods can cause two times more weight gain than in unstressed individuals, as found in a recent study.

But what's the brain mechanism behind stress-eating, and how can you fight it?

Why do people stress eat?

When momentarily stressed, your body releases adrenaline. This hormone prepares the body for fight or flight, putting hunger (even pain) on hold. But if stress persists, another hormone, cortisol, is released. Cortisol increases your food cravings.

Problem is, as long as stress persists (i.e., chronic stress), cortisol levels remain high, and you’ll continually crave food.

Unfortunately, stressed people are oddly inclined towards eating sugary snacks to find comfort. Hence the term "comfort foods."

Now, here's where things get interesting.

Chronic stress, comfort foods, and your brain

A research team has discovered that stress dampens the pleasure the brain derives from eating, causing you to continually eat more sugary foods to compensate.

The brain gets constantly rewarded by these highly palatable foods, never getting fully sated. More calories, more weight gain.

The researchers experimented with mice and discovered that these brain changes occurred in the lateral habenula.

The lateral habenula is involved in switching off the brain's response to food intake when satiety is reached.

During short-term stress and a high-calorie diet, the lateral habenula works just fine. But during chronic stress, this brain region goes inactive; it doesn't shut off the brain's pleasure derived from eating. You therefore overeat since the brain keeps getting pleasure from the palatable diet.

Chronic stress can cause two times more weight gain

"Stressed mice on a high-fat diet gained twice as much weight as mice on the same diet that were not stressed," the researchers noted.

The reason for this excessive weight gain was the molecule NPY. In response to stress, the brain produces NPY, which impairs the lateral habenula. When the researchers blocked NPY, the mice were less inclined to eat comfort foods, resulting in less weight gain.

How to stop stress-eating amid stressful times

The findings show that stress can compromise your body system, pushing you towards high-calorie foods that promote weight gain.

With this awareness, during stressful times is especially when you should prioritize healthy eating habits. Of course, it's easier to grab a quick sweet snack when you're busy and stressed. But in the long term, that can be bad for you.

This is where stress management comes in.

If you stress eat as a coping mechanism, below are stress management techniques to adopt:

Ways to overcome emotional eating

At Hope Mental Health, we offer a safe environment where you can talk about your problems and heal via a treatment method best suited for you. Get in touch now to begin your journey towards better well-being.

Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Hope Mental Health, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.  Ms. Woodland with her background in nursing, prefers a holistic and integrative approach to mental health care that addresses the mind and body together. While Ms. Woodland provides medication management services in all her patients, she believes in long-lasting solutions that include a number of psychotherapies, namely cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention therapy, attention to lifestyle, evidenced based alternative psychiatric care and spirituality. If you’d like to gain control over your mental health issues, call Hope Mental Health at 208-918-0958, or use the online scheduling tool to set up an initial consultation.

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