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
- Mindfulness meditation: Studies show that mindfulness meditation can help reduce stress and promote mindful eating, preventing you from emotional eating.
- Exercise: Exercise can help reduce stress by blunting the negative effects of stress.
- Get help: If you're battling with chronic stress, don't be afraid to seek support from your loved ones. If you need someone more professional or neutral to avoid being judged, come let's talk.
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.