Why We Stress Eat

Why We Stress Eat

May 17, 2023

Two Systems That Influence Intake

Several years ago my husband and I were on a hike in the Salt Lakes of beautiful Utah. It was a sunny day with fascinating terrain to discover. But there was a problem.

It was day six of this family trip and I had run out of my backup stash of protein bars. The discussion of stopping for lunch would briefly come up but we'd soon be piling back out of the car at another nature center that had no snack bar. Noon came and went. 2 pm came and went. It was 4:30 pm and we were just headed to "lunch."

When we arrived at In-N-Out Burger I was first in line to order a double. I was ravenous. My blood sugars, hunger hormones, and energy level were all barking at me to eat NOW.

The Homeostatic System

This is a story that illustrates the first system that influences us to eat food. The homeostatic system keeps our body in balance. That is a fancy word to say we need to keep our blood sugar within a healthy range and put energy (food) in our bodies to operate our daily functions. In this system, we have hormones such as ghrelin, leptin, and insulin.

But here is another story.

It was 4 pm at my house and both of my children were melting down. Yes, it was the witching hour. I was trying to get dinner on the table and keep them from injuring each other while work-related stressors ran through my mind. I hit my limit. I (miraculously) got dinner on the table but as soon as my husband was done working I blew that popsicle stand. As I drove around Kansas City, I had a strong urge to stop somewhere for comfort food. A Sonic blast? Or maybe I'll veg on the couch with popcorn after the kids are in bed.

It was at that moment that I wondered why stress sends us to food. Even as a bariatric dietitian for over a decade, I felt I had more to learn.

The Hedonic System

This illustrates the second body system that influences our food intake. The hedonic system guides us to food for reasons other than energy and blood sugars. In this system, we have hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, cortisol, and serotonin.

There is much to be said about dopamine (and the other powerhouses related to hedonic eating) but since we are talking about stress, we're going to put cortisol front and center.

Cortisol and Food Triggers

You know it as the stress hormone. Cortisol has many important jobs in the body including blood pressure regulation and suppressing inflammation. In times of stressful events, the body will send higher amounts of cortisol into our bloodstream as a defense mechanism. It puts us into "fight, flight or freeze" mode to respond to the stressor. Elevated cortisol increases cravings for high-fat or high-sugar foods to help us fuel up for the fight. and plays a large role in why we stress eat.

These stories highlight the two different body systems that influence our eating. If we go too long without eating, we feel the impact. After we experience a high-stress event, we feel the impact. These two systems are not independent of one another. Caring for both is where we find more peace and wellness.

Meeting our Body's Physical Needs Helps Us to Better Manage Our Emotional Needs

When we are dehydrated and then get slammed at work, it makes managing stress eating on the way home an even stronger pull. Our body is sending signals for water but they are easily confused for hunger. Then cortisol comes to the stage courtesy of a high-stress afternoon at work and now we have conflicting signals for high-fat or high-sugar foods and drinks.

Compare this against a day of having plenty of water but the same stressful afternoon. Being hydrated will not change elevated cortisol getting in the mix, but it can help quiet the other signals you're facing and better sort through what would help you most.

Understanding what is happening during times of stress in my body is a huge help. Add that knowledge to what you've learned on your bariatric journey about your body's basic needs like water, sleep, quality food, and movement. All these tools for physical and mental care can help you feel more prepared to say "I need a moment of quiet and some deep breaths more than I need chocolate."

What are the basic needs of the human body? We can think of an infant for some clues. Babies need to be fed, they need sleep, and they need consistency. When we are well-fed, well-slept, and in a good routine, we feel better.

We don't outgrow our basic body needs but we do get better at masking or ignoring them. Getting back to your basic needs is a great starting place for stress-eating management.

Engaging the 'Rest or Digest System'

Cortisol engages what is called the sympathetic nervous system. This is the big fancy way of saying the "fight, flight, or freeze" system. This is a good thing because cortisol is what tells us to run (or freeze or fight) in a moment of danger.

Cortisol stays elevated in the blood for several hours and takes time to come back down. This is why you may crave something after a stressful event, even after it's over.

There is good news though! You can engage the parasympathetic nervous system which is instead the "rest and digest" system. There are tools available to all of us to engage this system and tell our brains we are no longer in danger.

There is a reason we feel better when we take deep breaths, listen to calming music, or splash cold water on our faces. These actions trigger the vagus nerve which engages our parasympathetic nervous system. In turn, cortisol will begin to come down and so does the pull toward trigger foods. It is not that these foods stop sounding good, but instead that you start to feel more in control again.

Other ways we engage the rest and digest system: humming, singing, meditation, yoga, movement, massage, hugging and cuddling, restorative hobbies, and gratitude.

So Why Do We Really Stress Eat?

Because we are human. It is in our biology. Hormones and neurotransmitters do their job to signal to us what it needs. We just don't always translate it correctly.

Taking the journey to improve caring for the body's basic physical needs and understanding the tools available for emotional needs can equip you for the lemons life is sure to serve us.

Not every day is perfect (because perfect is an illusion) but we can learn, grow and add to the toolbox as we journey ahead.

Steph Wagner MS, RD/LD has worked as a dietitian and food coach and co-founded Bariatricfoodcoach.com



Steph Wagner MS, RD/LD has worked as a dietitian and food coach to bariatric patients since 2009. She is the co-founder Bariatricfoodcoach.com with her husband Kevin, a web developer. Together they've built an extensive, user-friendly website and community for post-op patients. Steph also has a published cookbook “Best Fork Forward: Everyday Dinners After Weight-Loss Surgery.” Read more articles by Steph!