C hanges in appetite and eating habits are commonly accepted as a major response to chronic stress. However, stress does not affect all people in the same way. Some people lose their appetites when they are under stress; others become ravenously hungry. The reason for this seeming incongruity lies in the human body's physiological reaction to a stressful environment (Takeda et al. 2004).
Modern evolutionary psychologists argue that for most of human history, an individual's survival depended on his or her ability to respond quickly and appropriately to danger. This led to the evolution of a specific stress response to prepare the body for either fight or flight, both of which require quick reflexes and explosive physical exertion. This response releases the hormone epi-nephrine, also called adrenaline. Adrenaline prepares muscles for either fight or flight by increasing blood flow and breathing rate. It also alerts the senses by dilating the pupils, among many other physical responses. The entire body is focused on responding to the stressor, and all unessential processes, like those of the digestive system, are suppressed. In a life-and-death situation, an individual does not need to be distracted by hunger or the need to urinate.
While these responses may well have been invaluable to the proverbial caveman, the situations that cause the average person stress today are usually psychological and emotional rather than physical. An increased heart rate and suppressed digestion do absolutely no good for the person who has just been pulled over for speeding. A greater concern is that many of the main stressors in people's lives today are chronic, rather than isolated incidents. Living in poverty or working in a poor environment creates ongoing stress that the human body has not evolved to handle. The result is that people who deal with constant stress are often in a constant heightened state of anxiety. This can lead to a variety of chronic health problems (Rutledge and Linden 1998).
In some highly stressed people, the constant flow of adrenaline suppresses the appetite, causing them to lose weight. Others, however, seek to relieve their anxiety though excessive eating. This is an effective self-treatment for anxiety because the consumption of some foods, particularly "junk foods," releases endorphins. The brain releases these pleasure-producing chemicals in response to some types of high-energy foods. The brain can actually become dependent on these chemicals, leading to food cravings. It has been hypothesized that the desire for these foods may be an unconscious attempt to prepare for the caloric output of fight or flight. Much is still unknown about these mechanisms, and research continues about the difference between individuals whose appetites increase in stressful periods and those whose appetites decrease. It has been proposed that women are more likely to eat under stress than men (Grunberg and Straub 1992).
In modern fad diets, stress is seen as the reason for weight gain. Weight-loss products such as cortislim claim to block cortisol, a stress hormone that leads to "belly fat." Some diet programs even claim that if one eliminates stress from one's life, fat will just melt off the body, once again suggesting a mind-body connection for dieting.
See also Alternative Medicine; Metabolism; Religion and Dieting; Socioeconomic Status
References and Further Reading Abramson, E.E. and Wunderlich, R.A. (1972) "Anxiety, Fear and Eating: A Test of the Psychosomatic Concept of Obesity," Journal of Abnormal Psychology 79 (3): 317-21.
Greeno, Catherine and Wing, Rena (1994) "Stress-Induced Eating," Psychological Bulletin 115 (3):
Grunberg, N.E. and Straub, R.O. (1992) "The Role of Gender and Taste Class in the Effects of Stress on Eating," Health Psychology 11 (2): 97-100.
Hibscher, J.A. and Herman, C.P. (1977) "Obesity, Dieting, and the Expression of "Obese" Characteristics," Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 91 (2): 374-80.
Linden, W., Leung, D., Chawla, A., Stossel, C., Rutledge, T., and Tanco, S.A. (1997) "Social Determinants of Experienced Anger," Journal of Behavioral Medicine 20 (5): 415-32.
Oliver, Georgina, Wardle, Jane and Gibson, E. Leigh (2000) "Stress and Food Choice: A Laboratory Study," Psychosomatic Medicine 62 (6): 853-65.
Putterman, Erin and Linden, Wolfgang (2004)
"Appearance Versus Health: Does the Reason for Dieting Affect Dieting Behavior?" Journal of Behavioral Medicine 27 (2): 185-204.
Rutledge, Thomas and Linden, Wolfgang (1998) "To Eat or Not to Eat: Affective and Physiological Mechanisms in the Stress-Eating Relationship," Journal of Behavioral Medicine 21 (3): 221-40
Takeda E. (2005) "Human Nutritional Science on Stress Control," Journal of Medical Investigation 52 (Suppl): 223-4.
Takeda E., Terao, J., Nakaya, Y., Miyamoto, K., Baba, Y., Chuman, H., Kaji, R., Ohmori, T. and Rokutan, K. (2004) "Stress Control and Human Nutrition: A Review," Journal of Medical Investigation 51 (3-4): I39-45.
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