Stress and Emotional Eating

Stress is a state of emotional tension and can be classified into mild anxiety and pathological or chronic stress. Mild stress can help the body to react in resolving faster situations that need immediate attention such as daily life problems. Pathological stress is usually accompanied by feelings of guilt, fear, tension and anxiety for an extended period of time and it often causes symptoms such as tachycardia (hart rate that exceeds the normal range), digestive disorders, diarrhea, headaches, dry mouth and depression. It can also cause a series of hormonal and emotional reactions in the body leading to the accumulation of excess weight.

In pathological or chronic stress, the brain triggers the production of a hormone called cortisol which in combination with other hormones such as norepinephrine, glucagon and somatropin, have adverse effects on the body. Cortisol reduces the body’s ability to burn fat and encourages its storage in the abdomen. The development of abdominal fat is often a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. The production of cortisol by the body is generally linked with obesity, resistance to insulin action and reduction of memory.

Humans with stressful lifestyles that consistently fail to have nutritious meals due to time constraints or other factors are usually led to the consumption of ready meals that are high in fat. Also, they tent to take increasing quantities of caffeine which causes dehydration that increases production of cortisol by the body.

Pathological stress is often accompanied by a host of negative emotions leading to large numbers of humans developing emotional polyphagia (excessive eating). Emotional overeating is amongst the most common forms of eating disorders. Humans who suffer from this disorder find refuge in the easiest form of pleasure: food consuming and in particular foods rich in salt and sugar.  These types of food provide a temporary relief from problems but result to the increase of body weight.

Although total stress relief is difficult to achieve, it can be significantly reduced in several ways. A key factor of reducing stress is to adopt a diet rich in nutrition. The consumption of fruits and vegetables such as citrus fruits, strawberries and peppers that are rich in vitamin C, contribute to the reduction of cortisol which subsequently leads to stress reduction and therefore prevents accumulation of fat in the abdomen. Scientific researches showed that a diet rich in seafood results in humans feeling emotionally better as these foods are rich in omega-3 oils which can reduce mild depression. Limiting the consumption of coffee to 2 cups a day and increasing hydration will help reduce cortisol levels therefore prevent the accumulation of abdominal fat. Also, the consumption of carbohydrates (bread, bulgur, rice, etc.) increases serotonin levels a substance that improves the mood.

Working out regularly can also contribute towards the reduction of stress. Exercising causes the production of endorphins in the body that improve the mood and help in weight loss with the result of increasing the confidence.

In general if the stress derives from the fact of being overweight, it should be considered as a sign to loose weight, begin a diet balanced in nutrition and start exercising.

Studies suggest that sleeping 7-8 hours daily will result to a 37-48% reduction of cortisol which will prevent accumulation of abdomen fat.

In conclusion, pathological or chronic stress can be reduced once a balanced diet rich in nutrition is adopted amongst with exercising and sufficient sleeping.  In addition, these factors will also lead to the reduction of excess weight.

Yiannis Kerimis MSc, R.D (USA)

Clinical Dietitian


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