Why does stress trigger me to eat unhealthy foods?

Dr. Mike Clark, DPT
Eating unhealthy foods when you get stressed out is common because of a change in the levels of certain hormones. Cortisol for example, is a major hormone that’s production is increased when we get stressed out. Elevated cortisol levels have been linked to increases in abdominal (belly) fat and the craving of certain foods, such as carbs, and research suggests that chronically elevated cortisol levels may decrease the transmission of serotonin, a chemical released by the brain to improve our mood.

Coincidentally, when we eat high sugar/ high carbohydrate foods it leads to an increase in chemicals that help our brain release more serotonin, which temporarily elevates our mood and makes us feel better emotionally. Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t last very long, creating a perpetual cycle that causes us to continually crave unhealthy foods. The great thing is research demonstrates that exercise can also raise serotonin! To start elevating your mood, decreasing the effects of stress, and living healthier, here’s what I suggest:
  • Perform strength training exercise 2-3 days per week
  • Perform cardio exercise 2-3 times per week for at least 30 minutes
  • Get in 10,000 steps daily
  • When you get cravings for unhealthy foods, drink 2 cups of water, research shows you'll eat less
Dr. Rovenia Brock, PhD
Nutrition & Dietetics

Stress often leads to unhealthy eating -- and all too often the foods you reach for only stress you out more, says nutritionist Dr. Rovenia Brock. To learn more about the vicious cycle of stress eating, watch this video.

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
When you're stress, you've activated neurotransmitters from a part of the brain called the locus coeruleus. Your body, in response, tries to calm those neurotransmitters and combat the stress. Some do it with cigarettes, some do it with food, some do it with sex, some do it with drugs. When you combat the stress with food, you're also activating the reward center of your brain. And then after that initial feel-good system wears off, you'll reach again for the same thing that made you feel good, calm, and relaxed—food. So when you add these emotions—like stress and anxiety—it makes it that more difficult, neurochemically, to stick to whatever diet plan you're trying to follow.
YOU: On A Diet Revised Edition: The Owner's Manual for Waist Management

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YOU: On A Diet Revised Edition: The Owner's Manual for Waist Management

For the first time in our history, scientists are uncovering astounding medical evidence about dieting -- and why so many of us struggle with our weight and the size of our waists. Now researchers...
Dr. Mike Dow, PsyD
Addiction Medicine

When you're stressed out, your stress hormones go up while serotonin - your brain's main feel-good, anti-anxiety hormone - goes down.  Sugar and processed carbohydrates releases surges of serotonin in the brain, so you may be tempted to eat sweet, sugary, carb-heavy foods to deal with this anxious state.

The solution: Swap these unhealthy foods for what I call "serotonin booster foods" which still release serotonin - but in a manageable, non-addictive way that won't give you a crash.  Whole grains like quinoa, high-fiber bread, and any whole fruit will give you the serotonin lift your brain is needing.  

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.