The Role of Chronic Stress in Weight Gain
Why we stress eat.
Posted September 13, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Chronic stress can be an independent risk factor for weight gain.
- Stress puts the body in fight-or-flight mode, which then triggers cravings for junk food.
- Methods to deal with stress such as slow breathing, meditating, or listening to music can help reduce cravings for junk food.
Everyone knows that stress is not good and can cause many medical problems such as increased blood pressure, headaches, heart disease, and weight gain. But do you know why some people eat to help combat stress?
Studies have shown that adults who grew up in a low socioeconomic environment may be more likely to desire food even when they are not hungry. A study at the University of Alberta suggests stressful childhood environments are a precursor for obesity later in life—and that advertising junk food is at the root of the obesity epidemic because it can be a trigger for so many people.
Childhood can dictate the type of food you desire
Stress is well-known to trigger appetite, and we will discuss that mechanism later in this post, but new information shows that stressful conditions experienced during early childhood appear to calibrate the brain to desire high-energy-dense foods throughout one's lifespan. This research also helps explain why people with lower socioeconomic status, who live in chronically stressful conditions, have higher obesity rates.
In this study, adults who grew up in harsh conditions were more likely to be motivated by food and more likely to desire high-density foods, i.e., junk food.
Why most people desire junk food under stress
We have all inherited what is known as the “thrifty gene.” This gene was passed down by our ancestors and is responsible for the storage of fat to be used during times of stress, i.e., famine, which was common hundreds of years ago.
When under stress, our body goes into fight-or-flight mode as it has always done historically when running from predators or during times of scarcity. Today, there are no longer saber-tooth tigers chasing us, but our bodies' response has not evolved, so when under what seems like harsh conditions, our bodies are driven to acquire and consume excess food. The brain signals the body to consume high-density food that can be used for quick fuel with some leftovers for storage. Due to this inherited mechanism, we naturally crave and desire this type of food.
Also, when we eat this food and the desire is satisfied, dopamine is often released, and this blunts the fight-or-flight response, helping to calm down the nervous system, another reason the body craves junk food when under stress.
In conclusion, our bodies via our genes are still wired for historic times. Using other methods to deal with stress such as slow breathing, meditating, or listening to music can often help satisfy and blunt the response in lieu of junk food.