Healthy Living

Stress and Eating: What's the Connection?

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 11/04/2009
Last Updated: 11/04/2009

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I have a friend who, every time she's under stress, drops 10 pounds. Just like that. She just can't eat, she says. I don't see her very often, but when I do I can take one look at her and instantly know how her life has been going.

But for every one of these types of friends, I know ten others who gain weight when they're under stress. And who isn't under stress these days? I'll bet most of us are.

In my perfect world, when I feel stress, I'd reach for some carrot sticks or a handful of grapes. But that's not what many of us do, according to researchers at the University of California-San Francisco. Their large study of chronic stress and eating behaviors found this: When more than 600 overweight women were questioned about their eating behaviors as they related to stress, these women reported not only eating more food, but food of the high-fat variety. And to make things worse, any control over their eating went out the window as stress made its way in.

So, what does this mean? For lots of people, stress is like a runaway train when it comes to controlling impulses like overeating or reaching for the wrong types of food. Ice cream, s, cheesecake, potato chips...the higher in fat, the better. (David Kessler - yes, that one - the former FDA commissioner - about how foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter the brain's chemistry and signal it to overeat. He says that rather than satisfying our hunger, certain foods just make us crave more and more).

Emotional hunger can be overwhelming at times, and we need to know the difference between this and real physical hunger,

I guess it all goes back to "mindful eating;" being conscious of where, when and how much you are eating. We must keep the radar on ALL the time, even in times of stress, when we're most likely to lose control.

How do you control your eating when you're stressed? Or if you don't, what types of foods are you likely to reach for? (If you tell me yours, I'll confess to my top five favorites!)

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It depends. Big stress makes me unable to eat - like the death of a family member. But smaller stresses send me right to the fridge. It's horrible and I'm working on it.

...she nods as she reaches for another doughnut...

For me, it's about balancing the salty with the sweet. If I've eaten a bunch of chocolate glazed mini doughnuts, I have to then balance it with a bag of Chex Mix. And then I invariably feel disgusting afterwards.

But no matter how mindful I attempt to be, the stress cravings always win out in the end.

I definitely reach for the doughnuts and cupcakes, but I make myself eat only one. I don"t keep them in the house so it's easier to buy one when I feel I need it:)

I'm with Marthandme. The bigger stresses can easily take 5 pounds off me in a week. But the littler, everyday issues have me reaching for the dark chocolate.

I'm with all of you. Heavy stress makes me a wraith, but everyday annoyances catapult me into Ben & Jerry's.

I used to reach for the ice cream, too. But, once over fifty, I found it harder to get the weight off. I have solved this problem by simply not buying ice cream. It takes a lot of will power but otherwise I would look like a Telly Tubby! Sometimes if I make myself a cup of herb tea, the urge to eat goes away.

I like to eat crunchy foods or fried foods when I'm stressed. But if I keep the high fat stuff out of the house, then I'll settle for the carrots.

Okay, you've all got me stressed out, so I have to be nice to myself and have a big dish of vanilla ice cream with lots of chocolate syrup. So soothing.


Number one is chocolate. Number two: ice cream for sure. And then, there's anything sweet, basically...

Ack! This comment thread is making me hungry. I also stress eat salty, fried, fatty food. But the worst is that when I'm busy or under stress I often don't have time to exercise -- so it's double the problem.

This is so interesting. I know a lot of people who gain weight when stressed. For me, it actually depends on the KIND of stress (relationship stress makes me stop eating, work stress finds me eating more). I'm eager to read the full study.

Interesting post. I find that I eat different things when I'm stressed and happy. Stressed is starch, happy I'm more into veggies.

When things are stressful outside I have to constantly check in with myself to keep from eating too much sugar. For me, that's the discipline, remembering to go inside and listen to what I need to do for myself.

When I'm stressed, I reach for the chocolate. If there's a bag of Nestle chocolate chips in the house, I'm in trouble. That's why I don't keep them in the pantry. However, during an extremely stressful life event, I loose weight.


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