Why Does Stress Increase Appetite?

Stress affects a large percentage of the population today. The overload of work, the amount of overstimuli to which we are subjected or the difficult family and work reconciliation make millions of people in the world suffer from this disease.

Evolutionarily, we are adapted to having specific moments of stress because it is something that has facilitated our survival as a species. However, there is a very important mismatch between the design we have and what we are actually experiencing.

From point stress to chronic stress

Day-to-day stress becomes chronic and affects health in many ways:

  • It worsens hypertension and allergies.
  • Pain increases.
  • It generates anxiety, insomnia or depression.

One of the factors that are most affected when we suffer stress is appetite. Thus, there are people who under stress can hardly eat a bite and, on the other hand, others cannot stop eating.

Keys to eating less during quarantine

Relationship between unhealthy food and stress

Many of us, when we are stressed, not only tend to eat more, but also the type of foods that calm our anxiety tend to be inappropriate.

In a 2006 study published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, it was shown that people under stress tended to choose unhealthy, high-fat foods, such as M & M’s chocolate lozenges, over healthy, low-fat foods, such as grapes.

Another experiment by the same authors showed that more women than men significantly increased their dietary intake when stressed, especially if they already followed some type of hypocaloric diet to lose weight.

On many occasions, this type of behavior responds to what we know as emotional hunger .  This is characterized by being a type of hunger that leads us to compulsively eat highly palatable foods to calm annoying sensations and emotions such as 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 induces the consumption of unhealthy foods. This is one of the hormones that is most secreted when we are stressed.

Another study published in 2009 by the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism  shows how stress induces the secretion of glucocorticoids, which increases motivation for food, and insulin secretion, which promotes ultraprocesados food intake and obesity.

Thus, a diet rich in sugars and unhealthy fats reduces the response to stress. The negative effect is that it reinforces the habit of eating improperly. For this reason, experts emphasize the importance of teaching techniques to patients so that they learn to identify their sensations and modify their responses to excessive eating.

Junk food

What can we do to reduce our appetite when we are stressed?

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

  • Learn to listen to what the body tells us : we must know how to distinguish if the hunger we feel is real or emotional in order to act accordingly.
  • Eat real, filling food: If we eat enough real food and cover our daily carbohydrate, protein and fat needs, it will be much easier to feel full.
  • Avoid having unhealthy food at home: the best way not to binge on ultra-processed food is not to have access to it.
  • Replace inappropriate foods with healthy snacks: if we feel excessively stressed and cannot avoid eating, at least we consume foods that provide us with nutrients for the body.
  • Replace binge eating with another behavior: compulsive eating can become a habit and habits can be changed. Thus, instead of eating we can try to go for a walk, call a friend or be with our pets.
  • Analyze what happens: excessive eating is still the answer to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions. Recognizing them will be one of the solutions to our problem.
  • Make room for our discomfort: feeling what needs to be welcomed will be another of the essential steps to take to overcome our stress.
  • Think long-term: When we overeat, it’s easy to just focus on the present moment. Therefore, it is important to think about the consequences of our actions.
  • Be rational: when we are overly stressed, we are often overwhelmed by emotions. For that reason, it is key that rational thinking comes into play 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 be able to solve any problem, there is nothing like accepting the situation in which we find ourselves.

Final recommendations to control appetite in the face of stress

Excess appetite, weight gain, and stress obesity are the consequence of the problem, not the cause. Therefore, it is important that we not only try to eat better, but, above all, we investigate what leads us to maintain this type of behavior over time.

Only if we are able to understand what causes us chronic stress, we can begin to solve our inappropriate eating behaviors. In case we do not find an answer or we do not know how to manage this stress, the best thing to do is ask a mental health professional for help.

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