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Stress

What's Eating at You? The Psychology of Food

How stress affects eating habits.

Key points

  • In a study, people who reported one or more stressors in the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories after a high-fat meal.
  • Not everyone responds to stress in the same way. Some eat to distract themselves from stress; others eat less when they're stressed.
  • One healthy way to deal with everyday stress is to find social support.

Whether it’s an argument with your spouse, a missed deadline, or a to-do list that’s eight feet long, we’ve all got stress. And unlike our ancestors on the African steppe, here in the West, our stress is often triggered by purely psychological states. The main consequence of this is that our systems are chronically flooded with stress hormones that cause a stress response in our bodies.

According to Robert M. Sapolsky, stress researcher and author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, the typical stress response looks like this:

  • Mobilization of energy
  • Increased cardiovascular tone
  • Suppression of digestion
  • Suppression of growth
  • Suppression of reproduction
  • Enhancement of immune system
  • Sharpening of cognition, alertness, and pleasure

For zebras, or our ancestors being chased by a lion, the typical stress response is a necessary survival mechanism. But for us, this same stress response can make us sick. In this post, I want to take a closer look at one aspect of this: how stress affects our eating habits.

How Stress Affects Your Eating Habits

There is a clear connection between stress and eating habits, but stress doesn't cause the same behavior in everyone. Some people eat to distract themselves from the stress, like when you reach for the Ben & Jerry’s after a hard day at work. Others ignore their hunger cues when they’re stressed, causing them to go for long periods of time without eating.

Additionally, stress can make you crave sugary, salty, and fatty foods. Cortisol is one stress hormone that floods your body when you feel overwhelmed or anxious. Because your brain thinks you need added fuel to mobilize the stored energy in your muscles and escape danger, you reach for foods that metabolize quickly but can leave you with a crash later on. When you’re in “fight or flight mode,” you’re not thinking about later. You’re looking for that hit of immediate gratification that will help you survive at the moment.

But stress doesn’t just affect what you eat; it can also affect your metabolism. According to one study, participants who reported one or more stressors in the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women in the 7 hours after eating a high-fat meal. This demonstrates the effects of suppressed digestion and translates to a potential 11-pound weight gain over the course of one year.

Why Does Stress Cause Some to Overeat but Not Others?

Still, stress doesn’t affect the eating habits of everyone. For years, scientists have been trying to understand why chronic stress affects different people differently. Or as Sapolsky puts it, “What makes stress stressful?”

So far, we’ve discovered five factors that play a role in determining how stressed we feel:

  • No control
  • No predictability
  • No outlet for our fear
  • A perception that things are getting worse
  • No shoulder to cry on

This means that those of us who learn how to cope with these stress factors can combat overeating, listen to the hunger cues our bodies offer and enjoy better digestion.

How to Deal With Stress

So why don’t zebras get ulcers? Zebras don’t get ulcers because they only respond to the lion chasing them at the moment. Their stress is triggered for five minutes, say, after which time either they’re safe or they’re dead. Unlike us, zebras never worry about the lion that almost caught them last week or the one that might catch them next week. Their bodies simply return to homeostasis after the threat is gone.

It turns out there’s a pretty simple explanation for why so many chronically stressed people get ulcers. Ulcers are caused by a bacteria that exists naturally in the gut. The trouble is that when we’re stressed, our stomach lining can’t repair itself. Our brains, swimming in a cocktail of stress hormones, keep telling our bodies to do it tomorrow, which leads to ulcers.

So what can you do to deal with the everyday stressors in your life?

  1. Build your support system. Having a supportive partner, friends, and a professional therapist to serve as a shoulder to cry on when you’re feeling especially stressed or anxious can make a big difference. Also, as much as we love to hate on social media, it can serve as a positive outlet and easy way to connect with others. Knowing that we’re not alone in our experiences builds resilience and helps us cope with stress.
  2. Take a breather. Set aside time every day to unwind. When we’re running on our hamster wheels from the moment we open our eyes to the moment our heads hit the pillow, there’s no time to stop and think, let alone feel our hunger cues. Instead, remind yourself to take one step at a time.
  3. Meditate. Which technique you choose matters less than whether you start. Find five minutes in your day to sit quietly, shut your eyes, and focus on your breath.
  4. Don’t spread your worry to others. Sapolsky mentions that one way to reduce stress is to take it out on someone else. However, this isn’t a sustainable practice. You don’t want to suppress your worry either, but finding healthy outlets for stress relief is key.
  5. Do spread control and predictability. Wherever you are a leader in your life, help yourself by helping others. If you manage a team at work, give your people agency and increase predictability by communicating clearly. Then do the same at home.

Disordered eating is only one of the ways chronic stress can make us sick. And stress is perhaps the biggest public health challenge we face in the U.S. Get to know your stress response and find healthy ways to reduce stress in your life. Your stomach will thank you.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Habash, D. L., Fagundes, C. P., Andridge, R., Peng, J., Malarkey, W. B., & Belury, M. A. (2015). Daily stressors, past depression, and metabolic responses to high-fat meals: a novel path to obesity. Biological psychiatry, 77(7), 653–660. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.05.018

Sapolsky, Robert M. (2004) Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, 3rd edition, Holt Paperbacks

Sapolsky, Robert M. (2017) Why zebras don’t get ulcers, Beckman Institute lecture. Retrieved 3/1/2022 from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9H9qTdserM

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