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  • Writer's pictureChristy Callahan, PMHNP-BC, NP

Why We Stress Eat

Stress can trigger emotional eating for several reasons, and these responses vary from person to person. Here are some of the key factors that explain why stress often leads to increased food consumption:

  1. Cortisol Release: When you're stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol as part of the "fight or flight" response. Cortisol increases appetite, specifically for high-calorie, sugary, and fatty foods. This evolutionary response helped our ancestors prepare for physical threats, but in today's world, it can lead to overeating unhealthy foods.

  2. Comfort and Distraction: Eating can be a source of comfort and distraction during times of stress. Consuming food, especially those rich in sugar and fat, can activate the brain's reward system, providing temporary relief from emotional discomfort.

  3. Emotional Regulation: People often use food as a way to regulate their emotions. Stress can lead to negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, or anger. Eating can provide a temporary mood boost, as certain foods trigger the release of "feel-good" neurotransmitters like serotonin. This can create a short-lived sense of relief from stress.

  4. Habitual Responses: Over time, people may develop habits of eating in response to stress. These habits can become automatic, leading to mindless eating when stressors arise.

  5. Social and Cultural Factors: Social and cultural influences can play a role. Many social gatherings, celebrations, and rituals involve food, so people may turn to eating as a way to cope with stressors or connect with others.

  6. Lack of Time and Planning: Stress often leads to a busy and chaotic lifestyle, which may result in poor dietary choices. People may opt for convenient, fast-food options due to a lack of time and energy to plan and prepare healthier meals.

  7. Sleep Disruption: Stress can also disrupt sleep patterns, leading to fatigue. Lack of sleep can affect hunger and appetite hormones, leading to increased cravings for high-calorie foods.

It's important to note that not everyone responds to stress by eating more; some individuals may lose their appetite when stressed. Additionally, emotional eating can become a cycle, as overeating may lead to guilt or shame, which can, in turn, exacerbate stress and trigger further emotional eating.

Managing stress in healthier ways, such as through relaxation techniques, exercise, mindfulness, or seeking support from friends and professionals, can help reduce the tendency to turn to food as a coping mechanism. Developing awareness of your emotional eating triggers and finding alternative strategies to address stress can also be beneficial in breaking this cycle. Christy Callahan PMHNP-BC, CRNP, is a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Shine Behavioral Health in Severna Park, Maryland.

How Stress Leads Us to Reach for Comfort Foods - Medscape - Aug 02, 2023.

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