Why Stress Eating Is a Double Whammy

A molecule in the brain drives eating while stressed. Julia Apanasenko/Shutterstock

Eating a pint of ice cream or a bag of chips is never a smart move. But when you're stressed, there's a good chance you reach for calorie-laden comfort foods and not a handful of carrot sticks.

Eating isn't the best way to ease stress, of course. Yoga, deep breathing or taking a walk are all much healthier alternatives. But in the stressful spur of the moment, it may seem more soothing to grab some candy. Not only does eating not really reduce stress, however; it can also make you gain weight.

And now researchers in Australia have found an additional downside. Eating while stressed, they discovered, leads to more weight gain than eating when you feel calm.

For the study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, researchers at the Eating Disorders laboratory at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research looked at the brains of mice.

"Our study showed that when stressed over an extended period and high-calorie food was available, mice became obese more quickly than those that consumed the same high-fat food in a stress-free environment," Kenny Chi Kin Ip, lead author of the study, says in a statement.

A 'vicious cycle' with stress and diet

Researchers found the molecule NPY was the key to the weight gain. Produced naturally in both humans and mice as a response to stress, NPY stimulates eating. When researchers turned off NPY production in mice, weight gain slowed down. Without the molecule, weight gain on a high-fat, stress-filled diet was the same as weight gain on the same diet without stress. Researchers say this shows a clear link between stress, obesity and NPY.

To find out what triggers the NPY increase during bouts of stress, the researchers analyzed the nerve cells that produce NPY, finding they have receptors for insulin, one of the hormones that control food intake. Normally, the body makes insulin just after a meal. That lets the body use glucose from the blood while sending signals to the brain to stop eating.

Stress raises blood insulin levels just slightly. But combine stress with a high-calorie diet in mice, and insulin levels skyrocket to 10 times higher than in mice that are stress-free and on a normal diet.

"Our findings revealed a vicious cycle, where chronic, high insulin levels driven by stress and a high-calorie diet promoted more and more eating," Herzog says. "This really reinforced the idea that while it’s bad to eat junk food, eating high-calorie foods under stress is a double whammy that drives obesity."

How to stop stress eating

If you're trying to guess how much someone likes you based on a single conversation, remember that your internal critic is incredibly harsh. Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

Whatever your reasons for eating when stressed, there are ways you can stop. The Mayo Clinic suggests these tips:

Ease stress. Try yoga, meditation, deep breathing or another way to calm your stress.

Check your hunger. Before you eat a snack, ask yourself if you're really hungry. If your stomach isn't growling and you ate recently, see if the craving will pass.

Resist temptation. Don't keep comfort foods in the house. Don't shop when you're angry or feeling bummed.

Treat yourself. If you limit calories too much or never eat treats, your cravings might skyrocket. Enjoy occasional treats.

Fight boredom. Take a walk, listen to music or call a friend when you're bored. Don't reach for snacks.

Snack smartly. If you must eat, try something healthy like fresh fruit or nuts.

Manage setbacks. If you have a moment of stress eating, try to learn from it and start over the next day. Make a plan for changes that will lead to better health.