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Stress and obesity: Why we turn to tasty food

Feeling stressed for a long period of time can change our appetite. This can make us more at risk of developing obesity. Learning to manage stress is one strategy that can support your weight management efforts.

It’s normal to feel stressed in response to challenging situations in our lives. It’s also very common. 35 percent of people in 142 countries, who responded to a Gallup global survey in 2018, said they feel stressed much of the day. This stress is often short-term – like worrying about an upcoming deadline – and can stimulate us positively to take action.

But if we feel stressed for a long period of time, our health can suffer. We don’t sleep as well and don’t move as much. Our eating patterns also change, and we crave more unhealthy food. These reactions to stress all play a role in making us more at risk of developing obesity.

Crying woman sitting on a couch.


of people say they feel stressed much of the day.

-Gallup’s Global Survey of 142 countries, 2019

Comfort food is a stress reliever

Stress is part of our body’s “fight-or-flight” response that has helped us to survive dangerous situations for thousands of years. And normally we only experience it for short periods of time. But people now feel stressed for so much of their day that the response is constantly activated.

When this happens, levels of cortisol – one of the main hormones involved in the biological stress response – rise. One of the effects of the elevated cortisol levels is the increase in appetite. So, if we feel constantly stressed, we also are more likely to eat more food.

And not just any food. Research has shown that we are more attracted to energy-rich food when we feel stressed. This might be because these foods can help us to feel a relief from stress. This is why it’s called ‘comfort eating’.

So, stress doesn’t just make us want to eat more, it also changes the types of food we want to eat. This explains why people who live with obesity tend to have higher levels of cortisol than normal. Stress also puts us at risk of sleeping worse, drinking more alcohol and moving less, which all increase our risk of obesity.

Woman sitting on the mat at the seashore having view on the big wave and  jetty

Actions you can take to manage stress

So, what can we do? There are a number of different strategies that can help you to manage stressful situations, as well as feelings of stress. For a guide to managing stress and stress eating, read the article Take care of yourself: 8 ways to manage stress - and weight

  • Gallup. Gallup Global Emotions 2019.
  • American Psychological Association. How stress affects your health: https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress [Accessed July 2019].
  • Stults-Kolehmainen MA & Sinha R. The Effects of Stress on Physical Activity and Exercise. Sports Medicine 2014; 44:81-121.
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  • Valk ES, Savas M & Rossum E. Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals? Current Obesity Reports 2018; 7:193–203.
  • Forman E & Butryn M. Effective Weight Loss: An Acceptance-Based Behavioral Approach - Treatments That Work (Workbook Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press 2016.
  • Harvard Mental Health Letter. Why stress causes people to overeat. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat [Accessed July 2019].

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