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Sharp Health News

How stress affects your appetite

April 6, 2022

Man eating donut and talking on the phone while driving

Whether you have an upcoming deadline at work or are feeling overwhelmed about a full day, life can be stressful.

And according to Erin Famulare, RDN, a wellness education specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers, when faced with a lot of stress, people may turn to food. “You may reach out for a bag of chips or a chocolate bar as a way to deal with your emotions,” she says.

Stress can have a significant impact on eating habits, explains Famulare. Researchers have linked weight gain to stress, and an American Psychological Association survey found that approximately one-fourth of U.S. adults rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale.

The main stress hormone, called cortisol, can cause an increase in appetite, leading people to overeat. Additionally, if stress wreaks havoc on your sleeping patterns, it can also alter hormones that control appetite, blood sugar and cravings.

“Comfort foods may be screaming your name, and the same amount of food that you usually eat may not fill you up,” Famulare says. “On the other hand, some people find they lose their appetite under high-stress levels, and this is typically associated with acute stress.”

Famulare shares three tips to stop stress eating:

  1. Be mindful. Acknowledge and become more aware of the behavior. You can do this by writing down your food and mood in a journal to keep track of stress eating. Identifying patterns in behavior can help you change. What time of day does stress eating usually occur? What types of foods do you usually eat during those times? Where and how much food do you usually eat?
     
  2. Focus on other activities. Identify a few additional behaviors you could tap into to help replace the stress eating. For instance, if you usually snack on chocolate around 3 pm on workdays, try going for a 20-minute walk and listen to your favorite music or podcast. Other ideas include calling a friend, watching a funny video, coloring or spending time with a pet.
     
  3. Address your environment. Make it easy to pick the right foods and challenging to pick the wrong foods. Get rid of the chocolate in your desk drawer. Add chopped veggies, fruit, and portion-controlled bags of nuts or popcorn in case you do reach for a snack.

“Stress eating is very common,” says Famulare. “Get curious about the behavior and find ways to improve your stress response through mindfulness practice. Get help when you need it and build a strong support network.”

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