A person pulling out a take out container.Share on Pinterest
Turning to high-fat and sugary comfort foods can be a response to stress. d3sign/Getty Images
  • A new study shows that stress combined with eating high-calorie ‘comfort’ food can cause brain changes that lead to more eating and increased cravings for palatable food.
  • These types of food activate the reward center of the brain. And although eating these foods provides relief and pleasure in the moment, it can also create an unhealthy association between stress and the consumption of unhealthy foods.
  • Stress causes physiological and behavioral changes that can lead to weight gain. These include reduced physical activity, hormonal changes, emotional eating and sleep disturbances.

During times of high stress, many people eat more than usual, commonly referred to as “stress eating.” While it’s okay to indulge every now and then, it can become a problem if food frequently becomes a source of comfort in response to stress.

According to a new study published in the journal Neuron June 8, stress paired with high-calorie ‘comfort’ food results in brain changes that cause more eating, and increase cravings for sweet, satiating food. Over time, this can cause weight gain.

Researchers from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research discovered that stress took over the brain’s typical reaction to satiety, which resulted in the continuous activation of reward signals that led to consuming foods that are more palatable.

“We showed that chronic stress, combined with a high-calorie diet, can drive more and more food intake as well as a preference for sweet, highly palatable food, thereby promoting weight gain and obesity. This research highlights how crucial a healthy diet is during times of stress,” Professor Herbert Herzog, senior author of the study and Visiting Scientist at the Garvan Institute, said in a news release.

“When we experience stress, our body releases stress hormones like cortisol. Cortisol can increase our appetite and drive cravings for calorie-dense ‘comfort’ foods, particularly those high in sugar and fat,” said Dr. Johannes Uys, a General Practitioner at Broadgate General Practice based in London.

Uys was not involved in the study.

These types of food activate the reward center of the brain. Eating while stressed can create unhealthy associations. In other words, if you are less stressed after eating certain foods, you’re more likely to continue with that behavior in the future.

“High-calorie ‘comfort’ foods activate reward centers in the brain, triggering the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine. While eating these types of foods provides temporary relief and pleasure, they also create a link between stress and the consumption of unhealthy foods, so the habit of eating these foods is continued through association,” Uys explained.

People are drawn to comfort foods for a number of reasons, Dr. Candice Seti, a licensed clinical psychologist and a certified weight management specialist, told Healthline.

“First and foremost, they literally make us feel better,” said Seti. “They are full of calories, sugar, carbohydrates, and fat. When consuming these ingredients, you may feel a sense of well-being as they trigger the brain’s reward system. To put it plainly, comfort foods give you comfort.It’s that simple. But unfortunately, this sense of wellness is short-lived.”

In the study, researchers also discovered that when mice experienced chronic stress, the lateral habenula, the part of the brain that controls the reward response, wasn’t active. This affected reward signals, leading to eating for pleasure rather than hunger. Results showed that stressed mice gained twice as much weight as non-stressed mice on the same diet.

“The lateral habenula (LHb) is an area in the brain that plays a role in regulating reward and aversion,” said Uys. “In the case of a short-term, high-fat diet, the LHb is activated to suppress the reward response and prevent overeating. Chronic stress can disrupt the functioning of the LHb, keeping it silent even in the presence of high-fat food. This means that the reward signals will stay active, leading to increased eating for pleasure without responding to satiety signals, or the signals that the brain sends to your body to let you know that you’re full.”

Stress causes physiological and behavioral changes that can result in weight gain.

“Stress keeps your body in survival mode, which means that it will act on instinct to keep you safe,” Uys explained.

When you are in a high-stress mode, the following changes can take place, according to Uys:

  • Hormonal changes: Stress activates the release of cortisol, which can increase appetite and promote fat storage, particularly in the abdominal area. It can also disrupt the balance of other hormones involved in appetite regulation, such as leptin and ghrelin.
  • Emotional eating: Stress can also lead to emotional eating as a coping mechanism. The combination of stress-induced cravings and the consumption of calorie-dense comfort foods can contribute to weight gain.
  • Reduced physical activity: Chronic stress may lead to less motivation for physical activity and exercise, leading to a more sedentary lifestyle.
  • Sleep disruptions: Stress can interfere with sleep patterns, and inadequate sleep has been linked to weight gain and metabolic disturbances.”

When it comes to stress and weight gain, cortisol is the driving factor.

“Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released when the person in question is under stress or going through some very difficult times,” Seti explained. “It is released into the body, and this causes rapid heart rate, sweating, increased blood sugar and blood pressure, muscle tension, as well as increased respiration and hyperventilation. While this hormone can be useful in a tricky situation, such as when the body feels threatened, it can also be made and released during panic attacks and anxiety issues, which can cause the effects of the hormone to occur even when the body is not under any stress.”

Additionally, cortisol triggers the emotional section of the brain, which leads to pleasurable activities, such as eating food, to become even more pleasurable.

“It is this idea of eating becoming more pleasurable, that can make it that much easier to overeat,” said Seti. “When one discovers that overeating can make them feel better at the time, they are more likely to fall into a habit of continuously overeating each and every time they feel stressed, which can in turn lead to weight gain and difficulty losing weight.”

Cortisol can also affect weight in another way: cortisol can actually increase the amount of fat deposits that are found throughout the body, typically in the abdominal area and stomach, Seti added.

According to new research, stress combined with eating high-calorie ‘comfort’ food can lead to brain changes that result in more eating and increased cravings for palatable food.

Consuming high-calorie ‘comfort’ foods activate the reward center of the brain. While eating these foods offers temporary relief and pleasure, it can also cause an unhealthy association between stress and consuming unhealthy foods.

Chronic stress can lead to physiological and behavioral changes that result in weight gain. These include hormonal changes, emotional eating, reduced physical activity and sleep disturbances.