You're not alone. Stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary "comfort foods" push people toward overeating.
- Effects on appetite: Chronic stress causes release of hormone called cortisol. Cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn't go away — or if a person's stress response gets stuck in the "on" position — cortisol may stay elevated.
- Fat and sugar cravings: Stress also seems to affect food preferences. Numerous studies — granted, many of them in animals — have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both.
- Different responses: Some research suggests a gender difference in stress-coping behavior, with women being more likely to turn to food and men to alcohol or smoking. Other research has shown that high stress levels lead to weight gain in both women and men, but the effect is typically greater in men.
Several years ago, British researchers designed an ingenious study that showed that people who responded to stress with high cortisol levels in an experimental setting were more likely to snack in response to daily hassles in their regular lives than low-cortisol responders.
How to relieve stress without overeating
1. Meditation: Countless studies show that meditation reduces stress. Meditation may also help people become more mindful of food choices.
2. Exercise: Overall exercise can blunt some of the negative effects of stress.
3. Social support: Friends, family, and other sources of social support seem to have a buffering effect on the stress that people experience.