This post is also available in Dutch.
Are you one of those people that can hardly eat when facing a stressful week filled with deadlines? Or are you stockpiling cookies and chocolate instead? It’s striking how people differ in how they respond to stress when it comes to food. What kind of ‘stress-eater’ you are depends on the type of stress, your sensitivity to stress hormones, and the degree to which you watch your diet in normal, non-stressful times.
Hormones and acute versus long term stress
Firstly, it seems that the type of stress influences how hungry you get. Acute stress, for instance experienced when you have to present or go to a job interview, triggers a fight/flight response. Your body generates adrenaline, which suppresses any hunger feelings. Even the intestines and their metabolism slow down. All because your energy is deferred to the mission at hand; flight or defeat the enemy (a.k.a. take on that daunting task).
When stress is more long term however, like a busy period at work, cortisol is generated. The effect of this infamous stress hormone is opposite to adrenaline; it makes you hungry. It’s a logical response of your body to an expected increase of energy. You tend to crave specific food: quick to get and high in calories, like French fries or a bar of chocolate. This makes you feel somewhat better, might even reduce stress, and this is why it is also called ‘comfort food’. The degree to which stress makes you hungry probably also depends on your individual sensitivity to cortisol. A study showed that people that responded more strongly to increased cortisol levels were more likely to snack during stress, and were also craving comfort food more. However, the intensity of the stress has an opposite effect: the more intense, the more likely people are to lose their appetite.
Conscious eaters are more likely to stress eat
However, also what type of eater you are plays a role here. If you are very aware of your eating pattern, are focused on a healthy diet, and thus often make conscious choices concerning food, you are what is called a ‘restrained eater’. This type of eaters most likely puts their prefrontal cortex at work while making these food choices, as this is the brain area for control. When stressed out, this control mechanism is prioritized less, and thus leads to less prefrontal activation. This decrease in control might lead to less conscious decisions. This is why especially restrained eaters will eat more and turn unhealthy foods in stressful situations. While unrestrained eaters, so those who pay less attention to their eating pattern, are not exposed to this effect and actually eat less in stressful situations.
The way in which stress impacts your eating pattern thus depends on multiple factors. If this is affecting you negatively, you might consider mindfulness to reduce the stress and its consequences. So, what type of stress eater are you? In any case, you are not alone, because both types are equally common.