Why You Stress Eat, And How To Stop (Part 1)

When it comes to talking with clients or communicating with people online the biggest obstacle that derails their nutrition and fitness is stress, and negative emotions.

On a basic level we all have a certain amount of unavoidable stress in our lives, and some have more than others.

How people react to stress differs greatly from person to person, and some will crumble in stressful situations, while others keep their composure and even thrive in that state.

Stressors come in many shapes and sizes in our modern world, and when they’re compounded together it amplifies their negative effects.

In an overly stressed state, your dietary decisions will be impacted whether you realize it or not.

In today’s blog we’re going to take a closer look at the ways that stress can cause you to deviate from your nutrition plan, and make those decisions you regret that leave you asking “why did I do that”

Stress Explained

You’re probably thinking I know what stress is! And you’re right, but from a physiological standpoint you experience a lot more daily stress than you imagine.

Hans Selye the godfather of stress physiology defined it as “ the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made on it.”

In many regards anything that causes a disruption to your physiological balance known as homeostasis is considered a stressor.

It’s your response to stress that matters most, not what causes your response.

Because stress comes in such a wide variety and different forms you may not always recognize these stressors.  

Your body certainly does though.

Acute Stress vs. Chronic stress

We are biologically equipped to handle short but intense bouts of stress followed by periods of rest and recovery.

Your ability to recover from stress determines whether you become more resilient or break down from that stressor.  

Unfortunately our modern lifestyle is one of chronic low grade stressors that happen all day long with little to no time to relax and recover.

Let’s use the analogy of car to help explain how this can create problems. When you drive a car it’s designed to handle to handle rapid acceleration (flooring it) occasionally.

However if you floor it every time you drive, eventually the engine will break or burn out.

Think of your body as the car and engine, and the gas pedal as your stress response. If you are stressed all the time eventually the body will go into a state of dysfunction to compensate for the overuse.

And you may be asking ok Alex, what the hell does this have to do with staying on track with my nutrition ?

Very glad you asked, I can be a chatty cathy sometimes let’s get down to it.

Stress and Impulse Control

The prefrontal cortex is the most evolved part of your brain that allows you to set long term goals and manage your actions to align with those long term goals.

Each time you’ve decided to not eat a tasty food like cookies or ice cream because you had a fat loss or health goal, that was the prefrontal cortex at work.

When your stress response is triggered, the hormone cortisol is released and inhibits the function of your prefrontal cortex.

The reason cortisol does this is in a real life or death situation being impulsive is a survival advantage.

When your life is being threatened your only focus should be acting quickly and managing and escaping immediate life threats.

For our ancestors the stress response used to be reserved for real life or death situations, not taxes and traffic jams.

As a result of the way your stress response evolved your ability to delay gratification and think of long term is not a  priority when the stress hormone cortisol is flooding the body and brain.

In essence your brain doesn’t give a shit if you eat a cookie, it cares about you staying alive long enough to pass on your genetics.

This impulsiveness is great for helping you to escape a real life dangerous situation, but not so much when you’re stressed out at work feeling tempted by the free doughnuts in the break room.

Mood Elevation

Believe it or not your body and brain don’t want you to always be a stressed out Debbie downer, and neither do I.

In an overly stressed state you’re less likely to procreate which from an evolutionary perspective is only second in importance to survival.

To help you elevate your mood, the brain will increase cravings for hyper palatable foods that will stimulate the reward center of your brain.

This extremely tasty and hyper palatable foods trigger the release dopamine, a hormone in the brain that makes you feel good.

The brain releases dopamine to encourage the behaviors that encourage your survival like eating sweet and fatty calorie dense foods or having sex.  

Dopamine is like a nice warm pat on the on the back that makes you feel good for doing  the right things from a survival and procreation standpoint.

Sugar and denser sources of carbohydrates elevate the hormone insulin which blunts the production of the stress hormone cortisol.

This blunting of the stress hormone cortisol and spiking of dopamine from the consumption of these sugary and fatty foods allows you to feel better, even if only for five minutes.


Stress Leptin and Ghrelin

Leptin and ghrelin are the two hormones in charge of regulating hunger and satiety. Leptin also plays a role in our energy regulation and metabolism, but that’s a different blog for a different day.

Leptin signals satiety to the brain and turns off hunger, while ghrelin stimulates hunger and encourages eating. They’re the yin and yang of your hunger and satiety.

In the presence of chronic stress leptin and ghrelin become dysfunctional.

High levels of cortisol from stress create leptin resistance in the brain which blocks the satiety signal.

As a result of leptin resistance your satiation and fullness from food will decrease.

Not a good thing when you’re trying to stay as full and satisfied as possible on a diet.  

When excessive cortisol is circulating due to stress, ghrelin is brought to an abnormally high level leading to a feeling of being overly hungry more frequently throughout the day.

In the presence of chronic stress you’ll  feel the need to eat more food due to increased ghrelin.

You will be  less satisfied with that food because of blocked leptin signaling, and make less healthy food choices  due to increased impulsivity and a need to elevate mood.

This is a powerful recipe for deviating from your nutrition plan and giving into stress and emotional eating.

Stay tuned as next week we’re going to cover the tips you can use to stay on track with your nutrition during stressful times in your life.