Why Stress Increases Appetite

Many people overeat when stressed. Their main argument is that food makes them feel better. We'll show you why stress increases appetite in this article.
Why Stress Increases Appetite

Last update: 21 September, 2021

Stress affects a large percentage of the population today. Too much work, lots of stimuli, or having trouble balancing family and work life can lead to stress, and stress increases appetite.

Evolutionarily, we are used to having specific moments of stress because it’s something that’s helped our species survive. However, there’s a very important mismatch between the design we have and what we’re actually experiencing.

Living in a stressful time is not the same as living under stress. The first is normal, unexpected, and caused by the environment. The second, living under stress, is toxic, sought out, and something we cause ourselves because it’s become a habit and we don’t know how to live otherwise.

Bernardo Stamateas, Toxic Emotions

From periodic stress to chronic stress

Daily stress becomes chronic and affects your health in many ways:

  • It makes hypertension and allergies worse.
  • Pain increases.
  • It causes anxiety, insomnia, or depression.

One of the factors that are most affected when we’re stressed is appetite. In fact, some people can’t eat under stress, and others can’t stop eating.

A man anxious about food.

The relationship between unhealthy food and stress

Many of us, when we’re stressed, tend to eat more. In addition, the type of foods that calm our anxiety tend to not be healthy.

In a 2006 study published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, it showed that people under stress tended to choose unhealthy, high-fat foods, such as chocolate, over healthy, low-fat foods, like grapes.

Another experiment by the same authors showed that more women than men significantly increased their food intake when they were stressed, especially if they already followed a diet to lose weight.

On many occasions, this type of behavior responds to what we know as emotional hunger. This is a type of hunger that leads us to compulsively eat tasty foods to calm annoying sensations and emotions like stress, sadness, anger, or loneliness.

What physiological factors influence the increase in appetite?

According to a study published in 2007 by the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, excess cortisol can make you eat unhealthy foods. This is one of the hormones that we secrete the most when we’re stressed.

Another 2009 study by the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism shows how stress makes you secrete glucocorticoids, which increases motivation for food. Additionally, it increases insulin secretion, which can make you eat more and influence obesity.

So, foods rich in sugars and unhealthy fats reduce the stress response. The negative effect is that it reinforces the habit of following a poor diet. Therefore, experts emphasize the importance of teaching techniques to patients so that they learn to identify their emotions and modify their responses to excessive eating.

Junk food on a platter.

What can we do to not let stress increase appetite?

Here are some tips that can help reduce stress-induced food cravings:

  • Learn to listen to what your body tells you: It’s important to know how to distinguish hunger from emotions to act accordingly.
  • Eat real, satisfying food: If you eat enough real food and get enough carbohydrates, protein, and fats, it will be much easier to feel food.
  • Avoid having unhealthy food at home: The best way to not binge on ultra-processed food is to not have access to it.
  • Substitute unhealthy food for healthy snacks: If you feel very stressed and can’t avoid eating, at least eat foods that give your body nutrients.
  • Replace binge eating with another behavior: Compulsive eating can become a habit, and habits can be changed. So, instead of eating, you can try going for a walk, calling a friend, or spend time with pets.
  • Analyze what happens: Eating excessively is still the answer to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions. Recognizing them will help solve your problem.
  • Make room for your emotions: Feeling what you have to feel is another essential step to overcome your stress.
  • Think long-term: When we overeat, it’s easy to just focus on the present moment. Therefore, it’s important to think about the consequences of our actions.
  • Be rational: When we’re overstressed, we are often overwhelmed by emotions. For that reason, it’s key that we think rationally to regulate our behavior.
  • Practice acceptance: Being permanently stressed puts us in a situation of constant struggle between what happens and what we want it to be. To solve any problem, you need to accept the situation you’re in.

Final recommendations to control appetite while under stress

Excess appetite, weight gain, and stress obesity are the consequences, not the cause. Therefore, it’s important to try to eat better. Above all, investigate what leads you to this type of behavior over time.

If you can understand what causes your chronic stress, you can start to solve the issue with your eating patterns. If you don’t know the answer or don’t know how to manage stress, the best thing to do is ask a mental health professional for help.

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  • Armero, M. (2019). Aprendiendo a vivir. Uno Editorial.
  • Duhigg, C. (2012). El poder de los hábitos. Editorial Urano.
  • Dallman, M. F. (2010). Stress-induced obesity and the emotional nervous system. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, Vol.21, (3), 159-165. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tem.2009.10.004
  • Newman, E., O’Connor, D.B. & Conner, M. (2007). Daily hassles and eating behaviour: The role of cortisol reactivity status. Psychoneuroendocrinology, Vol. 32, (2), 125-132. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2006.11.006
  • Zellner, D.A., Loaiza, S., González, Z., Pita, J., Morales, J., Pecora, D., Wolf, A. (2006). Food selection changes under stress. Physiology & Behavior, Vol. 87, (4), 789-793. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2006.01.01