Stress and Diet

Published in Institute for Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Training Program Curriculum. 

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Stress refers to your body’s response to challenges that it may face. Stressors – factors leading to stress – can include everything from work to physical activity to family life to relationships to major life events or changes. Stress can be physical, mental, or emotional.

Perceived stress refers to the amount of stress that an individual feels he or she is under. Two people in the exact same situation may perceive the amount of stress caused by it completely differently. The degree to which stress is perceived will determine the degree to which a response is necessary to cope.

When faced with stressful situations, people have to find ways to cope appropriate with the level of stressed perceived. Coping mechanisms may be different for everyone and wide-ranging, but one thing that many people turn to when faced with stress is food. Food offers a momentary escape or an immediate pleasurable experience in the midst of an unpleasant state, making it an attractive option for a quick fix to alleviate stress.

Stress can be acute or chronic – both of which can affect your diet.

Acute stress refers to stress we experience for a brief amount of time. An example of this would be preparing for a big exam or presentation or running late for a meeting and being stuck in traffic. Acute stress is likely to increase your drive to eat even if you’re not hungry.1

Chronic stress refers to stress that is experienced continuously over an extended period of time – typically over the course of months. Chronic stress takes a major toll on health and creates a pro-inflammatory state associated with a variety of chronic disease states – most notably obesity. Research has shown that chronic stress affects the specific foods that are consumed; it alters the brain’s response to highly palatable foods and leads to an increased drive to seek out such foods and disinhibited eating practices.2

A small amount of stress (called eustress) can be beneficial. It may help increase focus and tap into the motivation needed to accomplish a difficult task. When stress becomes overwhelming and constant, on the other hand, it affects your health and emotional state and almost certainly will affect your diet.

During times of mild stress, people are often driven to eat more. During times of extreme stress, however, like a major life change or traumatic event, people may have less of a desire to eat. Once again, the degree to which stress is perceived will make a big difference in regard to eating behavior.

Stress typically affects the diet in two main ways – first, stress affects our behaviors around food driving what and how much we eat. Second, stress creates the perfect scenario for fat storage and promotes an obesogenic state.

Stress and Food Preferences

Have you ever noticed the types of food you crave when you’re feeling stressed – pasta, cake, cookies, or ice cream? Stress has a major impact on the types of food one tends to seek out and you’re much more likely to choose these types of comforting foods or snacks than celery sticks or asparagus. What these craved foods have in common is that they’re considered hyper-palatable – they’re high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sugar items that are hard to turn down at any time, but especially difficult if you’re stressed.3 There is an explanation behind this phenomenon, particularly in regard to high-sugar foods, which provide a quick source of energy that the body needs when it is stressed as it prepares for “fight or flight.”

Highly palatable foods also lead to the release of dopamine (the feel-good hormone), which is particularly attractive when you’re stressed. Overtime, it may lead you to seek out that feeling more and more, but eventually you don’t get that same reward and need to consume more highly palatable foods to do so. This can create addictive-like or compulsive-eating behaviors that become difficult to control.4

Stress and Body Weight

As overweight and obesity rates rise throughout the world, knowing factors that contribute to them is a crucial part to ending the epidemic. Stress is a main contributor of obesity – a major risk factor for things like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.5 Stress is linked, in particular, with increased weight around the belly region – remember, people who carry most of their weight around the belly (versus around the hips) are more at risk for heart disease and diabetes.6

People under stress are naturally driven to eat and are more likely to exceed their needs. Being able to stop eating also becomes more difficult as your hormone response is affected by stress.

Reducing Stress’s Impact on the Diet

Stress management may naturally help support a more nutritious diet as it’s likely to reduce the instances when one is driven to consume high-calorie or high-sugar foods and may also help balance the hormones related to appetite and weight regulation. This may lead to better dietary choices and eating a diet more in line with your actual needs.

Incorporating mindfulness-based practices like meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, body scanning, and loving kindness exercises seem to be particularly effective in helping to mitigate stress’s impact on the diet.7

Highly palatable foods may provide a form of short-term relief for some, but if the stressor isn’t addressed, preferences for these foods may strengthen and the risk for obesity may increase. Remember to always go back to the root cause. Determining how to alleviate stress can be difficult, but its impact on your health goes beyond your waistline and helps increase longevity, health, and happiness.

References

1. Rutters, F., Nieuwenhuizen, A. G., Lemmens, S. G., Born, J. M., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S. (2009). Acute stress-related changes in eating in the absence of hunger. Obesity 17(1), 72–77. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18997672

2. Tryon, M. S., Carter, C. S., Decant, R., & Laugero, K. D. (2013). Chronic stress exposure may affect the brain’s response to high calorie food cues and predispose to obesogenic eating habits. Physiol Behav 120, 233–242. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23954410

3. Yau, Y. H., & Potenza, M. N. (2013). Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol 38(3), 255–267. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24126546

4. De Macedo, I. C., de Freitas, J. S., & da Silva Torres, I. L. (2016). The influence of palatable diets in reward system activation: A mini review. Adv Pharmacol Sci 2016, Article ID 7238679. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27087806

5. Sinha, R. & Jastreboff, A. M. (2013). Stress as a common risk factor for obesity and addition. Biol Psychiatry 73(9), 827–835. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23541000

6. Aschbacher, K., Kornfeld, S., Picard, M., Puterman, E., Havel, P. J., Stanhope, K., Lustig, R. H., & Epel, E. (2014). Chronic stress increases vulnerability to diet-related abdominal fat, oxidative stress, and metabolic risk. Psychoneuroendocriniology 46, 14–22. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24882154

7. Daubenmier, J., Kristeller, J., Hecht, F. M., Maninger, N., Kuwata, M., Jhaveri, K., Lustig, R. H., Kemeny, M., Karan, L., Epel, E. (2011). Mindfulness intervention for stress eating to reduce cortisol and abdominal fat among overweight and obese women: An exploratory randomized controlled study. J Obes 2011, Article ID 651936. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21977314