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Can Stress Make You Fat?

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More

Do you eat when you’re not hungry? After a long, hard or stressful day, are you likely to reach for a bag of chips, sweet treat or sugary drink as a way of rewarding or soothing yourself?

Most of us eat, at times, for reason other than physiological need. And that’s part of normal eating behavior. Occasionally soothing yourself with comfort foods or eating because something simply looks or smells delectable can be part of a healthy lifestyle and a healthy relationship with food.

But, what we eat, when we eat and how it affects our bodies and our brains is complicated. And according to a 2010 survey of stress in America, obesity and stress are linked. “Children and adults alike who are obese or overweight are more likely to feel stress,” according to the survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA). 

So, is it that stress has an impact on eating? Or is it just the opposite; that we eat too much and obesity, with its health and social issues, causes stress?

The answer, like the problem, is complex. Our bodies are designed to crave energy-dense foods. In other words, our bodies need sugar and fat and are designed to crave sugary and fatty foods. Which worked for us, when we weren’t surrounded by them.

But now, we live in a world that promotes our increase in eating unhealthy foods. Half of Americans went to McDonalds in March of 2013, according to location analytics group Placed Insights, for example. When it’s right there and you’re craving it, it’s hard to resist.

Being surrounded by high calorie foods that we crave and can afford certainly contributes to the weight problems many American’s face.

However, given the struggle so many people face when attempting to change their eating behavior, it seems essential to understand the impact of stress on our eating.

And stress does change our eating. Either we eat more or we eat less when stressed, particularly when faced with on-going stress.

Maybe you’re someone who can’t stand the sight of food when faced with conflict, an important meeting at work or an overload of daily tasks. Acute stress shuts down digestive activity, which may make food the last thing you want.

On the other hand, a key hormone, released during stress, cortisol, enhances appetite. Add to that the emotional comfort we often experience from high fat and sugary foods and excess eating during prolonged stress makes sense.

Our individual habits and approach to food has an impact on whether we overeat during times of chronic stress. Dieters-that is, people who restrain eating-for example, are more likely to overeat during times of stress.

How stress is linked to our eating and ultimately our weight and overall health is an area of ongoing study. Access to sweet tasting foods can suppress stress levels in rats, according to NeuroFAST a project that aims to investigate the common neurobiology involved in eating behavior, addiction and stress. But food wasn’t the only thing that reduced stress for rats. Other behaviors, such as sex, also reduced stress.

So what can we learn from the rats? We can learn to tune in to times of stress and recognize that it can trigger changes in our eating behavior. We can also identify a range of activities that reduce stress and engage in them during times of stress.

Exactly how stress hormones and our need to soothe ourselves during times of stress impacts our eating is not entirely known. But, clearly gaining a better understanding is key to managing our health in a high-pressure society where high calorie foods are readily available.

Keep Reading By Author Christy Matta, M.A.
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