Is Stress Causing You To Overeat?

You’ve had another hard day at work or at school. 

As soon as you get home, you reach for a candy bar, potato chips, or some other comfort food. 

While you might have been planning to have a little snack, before you know it, you have eaten all of the junk food in the house!

You might be surprised to discover that your junk food binge isn’t necessarily caused by a lack of impulse control or gluttony. 

Stress may be the culprit.

There is now a large body of research that indicates stress can contribute to overeating.

In this post, I’ll explain how stress can make you overeat and share a few strategies for avoiding this common problem.

What is stress?

Stress is a natural physiological response that occurs when you encounter a dangerous or challenging situation. 

When you encounter this kind of threatening situation, the adrenal glands will release several hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. 

These hormones prepare your body for action by: 

  • Making your senses more alert
  • Speeding up your heart rate and breathing
  • Tensing your muscles
  • Increasing your blood pressure
  • Pushing more glucose into the blood for energy
  • De-prioritising some non-essential bodily functions (like the metabolism of food)

A small amount of stress can be useful. 

It can help escape a burning building or deal with a looming deadline at work. 

However, constantly being stressed about things like electricity bills, traffic, relationship problems, or your physical appearance is not as useful. 

This type of stress, called chronic stress, can lead to a range of health problems including low energy, headaches, an upset stomach, chest pain, insomnia, and a compromised immune system. 

Chronic stress can also increase the risk of several illnesses like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

How stress causes overeating

Stress causes overeating in a number of ways, including:

High cortisol levels

If you have an acute stress response to a dangerous situation, your appetite is actually temporarily suppressed by adrenaline (also known as epinephrine). 

This is the hormone that is responsible for the additional alertness and energy you experience during that stressful event.

However, if you have chronic stress, cortisol begins to play a bigger role. 

Cortisol has been found to increase appetite and and the motivation to eat

If your stress levels never subside, you will be hungry more often and have an eagerness to overeat.

Unhealthy behaviours

People suffering from stress are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours like drinking excessive quantities of alcohol or failing to get enough sleep. 

Both of these unhealthy behaviours can affect the brain and increase the risk of overeating. 

Certain foods counteract the stress response

There is a reason why humans tend to reach for a fried foods, ice cream or chocolate when stressed. 

Foods that are high in sugar or fat are most effective at reducing the emotions and physical responses associated the stress. 

As a result, you are more likely to over-indulge in these kinds of food. 

Blood sugar levels

Acute stress increases blood sugar levels so you have additional energy available to run from (or fight) a perceived threat. 

This is the reason why people who have chronic stress for a number of years have a higher risk of contracting diabetes

Having high blood glucose will also make you thirsty, which can cause you to consume more calories than normal. 

How do you know if you are a stress eater?

There are several warning signs to look out for, including: 

  • Eating more to feel better about yourself
  • Eating despite not being hungry
  • Eating more after a stressful event or when feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling that food gives you an immense amount of comfort

How to relieve stress without overeating

Fortunately, there are many effective ways to reduce stress levels without resorting to overeating. 

The most effective methods are: 

Exercise

Exercise has been scientifically proven to reduce stress by lowering stress hormone levels and producing higher levels of endorphins (feel good hormones). 

Simply incorporate 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise into your day to reduce your stress levels.

Practising mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of focussing your attention on the present while calming acknowledging any feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. 

It can be achieved through various activities including meditation, mindful colouring, and yoga

Mindfulness has been proven to reduce both anxiety and mental stress. 

Sleep

Getting plenty of sleep can relieve stress levels by reducing cortisol levels in your body. 

You should aim for a minimum of 7.5 hours of sleep every night. 

By relieving your stress levels with these techniques, you can reduce the likelihood of overeating — which will improve your physical and mental health in the long run. 

I hope you found Is Stress Causing You To Overeat? informative. 

For more articles on stress reduction, please bookmark the site!

Stephen Coleclough

Stephen Coleclough is a leading international tax adviser who specialises in dealing with ultra high net worth individuals.

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