Stress and Eating Habits

Written by: Eva Kova─Ź, Univ. graduate of Psychology

The usual stressful events that happen daily should be bearable by most people. Stress becomes a problem, when such events start to pile up. When this happens, a person who is over-subjected to stress can become chronically stressed. Chronical stress does not only appear as a momentary welfare and impaired psycho-physical condition, but it also causes changes in one's physiological state, because stress destroys the state of homeostasis or so called "status quo" of the body.

Try to imagine, that you are getting ready for an important public speech, that you have a difficult exam ahead of you or other difficult situation that stresses you out. Do you tend to think about food in such moments? Are you eating some chocolate, cookies, a sandwich, and generally eat more often than usually?

Stress Affects Eating Habits in Two Ways

One can seek comfort in food as their lust for food increases or doesn't feel like eating at all because they lost their appetite. Maybe the fact that stress raises appetite is new to you. But let's take a closer look. Research on animals revealed that in most cases stress caused a smaller food intake. But something interesting happened when animals got to choose between the tasty (fatty, sweet) food and less tasty food. When being under stress, animals ate tastier food.

Research shows that about 30% of people decline food when stressed and lose their body weight. But most people eat more. Add up the easily accessible caloric dense food in the developed world and you'll get the answer why people complain they eat more when stressed all the time.

Reasons for appetite to rise under stress can be found in different places. Hunger felt while being stressed is usually subjective. Researchers relate it to the hormone levels, especially of the cortisol and insulin that make brain feel the hunger and cause the need for eating. There is also a psychological explanation for raised appetite.

Psychologists relate eating to one's need of taking control of the situation, redirecting the source of the stress, and achieving the feeling of comfort. Professionals agree that eating under stress plays the same part as smoking. Smokers smoke more when they are stressed. It's all about the attempt of controlling the tension and taking control.

Eating calorie dense food makes us feel better and for a moment we feel like we cope better if we eat food, high in calories. But we forget that stressors among us don't have much to do with the primary stress sources from history when it was all about the "eat or be eaten" relationship. In such situations it was important for a prehistoric man to gather and activate all of the available energy and react to it with fight or flight.

These days stressors are more or less psychological and not as much energy is needed to cope with them. The excessive food intake is unnecessary now and its logical effect is gaining weight. We usually learn that after we get the extra pounds. Being overweight usually makes us unsatisfied with our body and lowers the self-esteem and self-respect.

Do You Feed Stress?

People who feed stress usually pay more attention to their weight in general. These people have to successfully ignore the signs of hunger during the day to successfully maintain their body-weight.

When a stressful situation occurs one loses the eating control and eats even if they are not really hungry. The most endangered group are women who have to fight the excessive kilograms in general.

Falling back on the food in order to manage stress and improve the well-being makes no sense in the long-term. Using overeating to cope with stress brings negative emotions and feelings, because the source of stress cannot be eliminated by satisfying the need for food.

Let's focus on the source of stress instead. If we cannot eliminate them, we can at least try to manage their negative effects. This can be done using psychological exercises, control of one's thoughts, relaxation, physical activity and recreation.