Preventing stress eating, and achieving weight targets

Chronic stress releases cortisol. Studies show that this increases cravings for high-calorie, sweet, fatty and processed foods. A challenge for many overweight people.

Cortisol actually has a survival regulatory function on metabolism: it creates a surge of energy in the body by stimulating fat and carbohydrate metabolism and increasing appetite. This can be problematic when it becomes permanent, because it leads to overeating and a preference for high-fat and high-sugar foods.1 Such "comfort foods" seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress-related reactions and emotions.2 Such foods in turn contain messengers that can be addictive and trigger signalling cascades that stimulate cravings and excessive calorie intake.

High cortisol levels more likely to lead to snacking in response to daily stressors

In addition to elevated cortisol, high insulin levels also appear to play a role in the phenomenon of "stress eating".2 A study of 339 healthy adults indicated that higher cortisol and insulin levels, as well as chronic stress, were predictive of greater weight gain over the following six months (at which point the observation period ended).3 Other studies hav also previously described that stress-related weight gain is more likely when insulin levels are high. This is of particular importance for people who are already overweight, as they have elevated insulin levels.2

 Dampening cortisol levels and its effects on metabolism

Going on a "diet from stress" seems almost impossible in today's world, yet there are effective ways to dampen the stress response and lower cortisol levels to a level more compatible with health. Relaxation exercises such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga or breathing exercises can be effective in helping to restore the production of this hormone to normal levels.1,2

One of the most important ways to combat stress and obesity is, of course, physical activity. This also counteracts another effect: in response to cortisol excess, testosterone production can decrease, resulting in a decrease in muscle mass and poorer or slower burning of calories.1 Typical of this hormonal situation is fat accumulation around the abdomen.

If you eat, eat right!

To ensure that the calories consumed are converted into energy and not fat, the overall diet must be of good quality, for example, as far as possible no added sugars and no highly processed foods, and instead be comprised from fresh ingredients in a balanced ammount. It is equally important to put some care into the timing of meals. There should never be hunger pangs, as peaks in hunger hormone levels will otherwise ensure that the next meal also goes "into storage".

A high-quality diet is not only important to prevent the excessive storage of empty calories. An overconsumption of inflammatory foods also means a relevant risk of metabolic disorders and a variety of chronic diseases for people with an inconspicuous BMI, for which the term TOFI (thin outside and fat inside) is now often used.4 To help succeed, it is also advisable to simply not have foods in the house that are particularly tempting to have through impulsive / stress eating.

  1. How Too Much Stress Can Cause Weight Gain (and What to Do About It).
  2. Why stress causes people to overeat. Harvard Health (2012).
  3. Chao, A. M., Jastreboff, A. M., White, M. A., Grilo, C. M. & Sinha, R. Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity 25, 713–720 (2017).
  4. (In German only) Uebel, U. Antiinflammatorische Ernährung. Uro-News 25, 40–43 (2021).