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Stress and obesity: Why we turn to tasty food
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.
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.
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