Does stress make you crave comfort foods?

You’ve just come home from a long day of work and immediately you turn towards ice cream and brownies to relax. While this food can provide immediate comfort, a new study shows that this can increase cravings which can lead to weight gain.

When stressed, your body releases cortisol; a chemical produced in the sympathetic nervous system that activates fight or flight energy. This can increase appetite and cravings for comfort foods that are high in sugar and fat.

“Eating these highly palatable foods can elevate dopamine,” says registered dietitian Lisa Osowski at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill. “This creates a sense of calm that can cause people to form unhealthy correlations such as comfort foods easing stress.”

For some of us, high stress and elevated cortisol levels lead to food cravings, followed by feelings of regret from poor food choices. This can trigger a downward spiral of shame and unintentional weight gain.

“When cortisol is high and you need to calm down, we often lean on foods that increase your dopamine levels,” says Osowski. “Cortisol pumps glucose into your bloodstream, which triggers an insulin release potentially leading to weight gain often in the truncal region.”

Stress and cortisol play an integral role in your day-to-day life. It’s important to find a balance. The right amount of stress and cortisol motivates you and fuels your body’s systems to meet life’s demands.

Osowski recommends other ways to control stress without relying on food for comfort:

  • Optimize sleep quality and duration. Optimizing sleep repletes body energy to a larger degree than the food you eat.
  • Include deep breathing and meditation throughout the day. Deep mindful breathing creates a pause between the stressor and your action to allow the space and time to make healthy decisions to deescalate the stress.
  • Don’t let your taskmaster bully you! It’s okay to take mental, physical and hydration breaks throughout your day.
  • When dietitians suggest foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans/legumes, nuts/seeds, olives and avocados, they are guiding you towards foods to stabilize your energy so you can perform life tasks, especially on stressful days.

Are you trying to watch your weight? Take a free online quiz to learn more about your healthy weight range here.

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