Why Do We Stress Eat?

Numerous times when we see patients that do not lose or even gain weight the preceding week we hear the following dissection/explanation of why weight loss did not occur: “I had a very stressful week”. 

Taking a step back and analyzing the concept of stress causing weight gain:  Stress itself does not cause weight gain but stress can cause behavior changes that will lead to the gain (or lack of loss).  So, how does stress interplay with behavioral patterns and why?

On the “macro” basis, stress is a negative impact on the body and almost like a reflex, when faced hit with something negative, the body tries to turn to something positive.  Eating a high caloric, high fat, high carbohydrate food source and/or drinking alcohol will provide an immediate gratification that sort of offsets the negative impact of stress.

Coning down to the chemical components, stress causes the release of cortisol that in turn, increases hunger.  Additionally, the hunger-inducing hormone, ghrelin, appears to be at increased levels during stress reactions. 

Interestingly, studies have shown that females are more apt to seek out high caloric foods when stressed out as opposed to males that are more prone to reach for alcohol to assuage the stress.

Clearly, there is no simple solution to stress eating.  Meditation, listening to music, exercising and other “usual suspects” to offset stress can be considered.  Several other potential interventions should be considered including:

  • Do NOT overstress yourself by placing unnecessary obligations on your schedule…i.e. learn to say “no” when asked to take on additional responsibilities.
  • Do NOT have the usual stress eating foods readily available to you, i.e. no derailing foods in your pantry, freezer or desk at work
  • Develop new hobbies that will result in stress reduction
  • Do NOT binge watch cable news shows…when do you ever feel less stressed after watching a slanted news show, no matter what side of the aisle you lean towards?

Stress can sometimes bring out the best in us, such Pat Mahomes playing at All-World level on a bad ankle during the Superbowl.  However, stress can also bring on unhealthy eating/drinking behaviors and for success in long-term weight control, we all need to combat this.

And for me? When I feel stressed out I place the headphones on and listen to a song from 1959.  Close your eyes and see if listening to this song doesn’t take you to a calmer, less stressful place…A Summer Place