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There’s a definite connection between stress and our appetite — but that connection isn’t the same for everyone, says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD.
Stress causes some people to ignore their hunger cues and refrain from eating for long stretches. For other people, stress turns them into emotional eaters who mindlessly munch.
“Some people overeat when they feel stressed, and other people lose track of their appetite,” Dr. Albers says. “Those who stop eating are so focused on their stress that they don’t hear or tune into their hunger cues. Those who overeat are attempting to distract themselves with food.”
Our brains send cues to our bodies when we’re feeling stressed. That’s part of our fight-or-flight response that helps us deal with perceived threats in our environment, Dr. Albers says.
When you’re feeling stressed, your body sends out cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol can make you crave sugary, salty and fatty foods, because your brain thinks it needs fuel to fight whatever threat is causing the stress.
How stress affects your metabolism
Stress doesn’t only influence your eating habits. Studies show it can affect your metabolism, too.
In one recent study, participants who reported one or more stressors during the previous 24 hours, such as arguments with spouses, disagreements with friends, trouble with children or work-related pressures, burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women in the seven hours after eating a high-fat meal.
Researchers say experiencing one or more stressful event the day before eating just one high-fat meal (the kind we’re most likely to indulge in when frazzled) can slow the body’s metabolism so much that women could potentially see an 11-pound weight gain over the course of a year.
How to combat stress eating
The daily demands of work and home life — and even the constant presence of electronic devices — puts people at a high risk for stress eating, Dr. Albers says.
The best way to combat stress or emotional eating is to be mindful of what triggers stress eating and to be ready to fight the urge.
“If you are someone who is prone to emotional eating, know your triggers, know what stresses you out and be prepared,” Dr. Albers says.
Part of being prepared is to arm yourself with healthy snacks, Dr. Albers says. Then if you feel the need to snack, you will at least nourish your body.
“Helping to regulate your blood sugar throughout the day is going to keep your body stable and your emotions on a much better playing field,” she adds.
It’s also a good idea to keep things at your workspace that will help reduce anxiety, like a stress ball. Or try taking a five-minute break every once in a while to close your eyes and take some deep breaths.
Regular exercise and making sure you get enough sleep every night also can help you to better handle the challenges that come up every day, she says.