on Stress Eating
We are a chronically stressed-out nation.
What we are often told is that it’s chronic stress that causes weight gain so common in adulthood. Because stress increases the hormone cortisol and high cortisol results in weight gain – especially around the midsection.
Where our ancestors used to only be periodically stressed when being chased by a tiger, we are chronically stressed – be it from sitting in traffic to managing kids’ schedules to budgeting for inflation. It’s this constant “hum” of stress which results in consistently high cortisol, which is why it’s so common to put on weight.
Hmmm. Sort of.
It’s not the stress itself that causes weight gain. It’s when our response to stress is stress eating, we might eat in excess of our caloric needs and when done frequently enough… that could result in weight gain.
But not all stress results in stress eating, and not all stress eating results in weight gain.
What is Stress Eating?
Let’s start with the basics. Stress eating refers to eating (and often overeating) in an attempt to relieve stress or anxiety versus eating to relieve hunger.
Like all things, there are ranges of severity of this behavior. Stress eating is particularly problematic when it leads to weight gain or interferes with one’s quality of life (e.g., budget).
But not all stress eating leads to weight gain. When people polish off a bag of chips or a pint of ice cream, it’s easy to perceive these binges as the reason for weight gain.
They could be, but when we overeat we often compensate over the next meal or day. We might consciously restrict due to guilt or “trying to be good” and we also just won’t be as hungry. So how much of the overage is actually responsible to new weight gain is up for debate.
It’s also important to remember we eat for lots of reasons in a modern food environment besides stress – including eating being part of social events or a way to procrastinate (hello, 3PM work break?!).
The more frequently someone binges due to stress, the more likely weight gain is from it. Conversely, sporadic overages are not the cause of weight gain. It’s more likely the daily diet is the problem.
Not All Stress Results in Stress Eating
We also find it’s a mixed response to whether people stress eat or not – and some of that depends on the type of stress it is.
Oftentimes, high-level catastrophic stress is not a trigger for stress eating. When there is immediate danger, like an impending natural disaster or a horrific crime, most people feel “sick to their stomach.” The response is not stress eating.
Conversely, the more moderate, chronic stress, which is very common in modern lives, tends to result in more stress eating. It’s that constant “background noise” of stress that seems to lead to a coping response of stress eating. Particularly because we have food around us everywhere.
But interestingly enough, even with moderate chronic stress, not everyone stress eats. One’s behavior is influenced by their environment, as well as the habits they’ve developed in perceiving and responding to stress.
Why Do You Always Stress Eat Comfort Food? And How Do You Cure Stress Eating?
If you want to learn more about the stress response (why is it always chips that are so satisfying?) as well as how to stop stress eating, be sure to check out this episode of The Consistency Project podcast from the link above.
Defining stress eating and the reasons why we eat
How the type of stress and available foods change our eating behaviors
Why processed foods are so appealing
The relationship between stress (cortisol) and weight gain
Strategies to control stress eating
American Psychological Association (APA), 2021. Stress in America Report.
Ans et al., 2018. Stress stimulates appetite when high-calorie/palatable foods are around.
Bazhan and Zelena, 2013. Stress without a high-calorie input does not result in obesity.
Konttinen, 2020. Emotional eating and obesity in adults.
Lemmens et al., 2011. Stress induces eating in the absence of hunger.
Yau & Potenza, 2013. Stress and eating behaviors.