Do you feel like the more stressed you are the more junk food you eat? It’s not just in your mind-new research indicates those cravings are physiological.
It’s been termed in the past as ‘emotional eating,’ but now researchers are discovering there’s a physiological reason why stress makes us hungry.
“The findings suggest that developing and gaining abdominal fat may be the body’s coping mechanism for stress,” says Jane Sadler, M.D., family practice physician on the medical staff at Baylor Medical Center at Garland.
Here’s how it works-when the body starts to feel stress, certain hormones like cortisol are released. It’s those hormones that then make comfort foods actually taste better, sparking cravings.
“It is the fatty foods and the sugar-laden foods that tend to help lower those stress hormones in those people, but it lowers their stress hormones temporarily,” explains Dr. Sadler.
Researchers also found that otherwise lean women with excess belly fat have an exaggerated response to cortisol which may be why it’s difficult for some to lose that weight in the midsection.
The findings are some of the first to illustrate just exactly how stress affects not only our daily food choices, but our overall health.
“And if they can realize that, perhaps they’ll reach for a bottle of water instead of the potato chips,” adds Dr. Sadler.
Most of us can’t avoid stress so the key is learning to manage it better. Researchers found exercise, meditation and massage can be useful in a weight-loss strategy because they keep stress levels from peaking which keeps people out of the junk food.
According to doctors, there is also no proof that we can control stress hormones with drugs so consult your doctor before taking diet pills that claim to regulate cortisol levels.
Baylor Medical Center at Garland
Revision date: July 5, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD