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Why you eat unhealthy food when you’re stressed

Understanding and managing your daily stress can help you to maintain better health – and manage your waistline.

Whether you’re feeling stressed about work, study, relationship or other issues, it’s likely the stress is disrupting your dietary behaviours. Sometimes we lose our appetite when we’re stressed, while at other times we overeat. And so much of the time we simply make poor food choices.

It’s important to understand the effects of stress on our health and dietary behaviours, says Dr Susan Torres, senior lecturer in nutrition for the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences and member of the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), who researches the links between dietary intake and mental health.

‘Stress is harmful to the body, and particularly is a major contributor to the development of chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression,’ she says.

Dr Torres explains how the body physiologically responds to stressful situations: ‘When we’re stressed our bodies release hormones like adrenaline, which raises blood pressure. If this is a regular occurrence over the long-term, it can result in hypertension which is then a risk for future cardiovascular disease.’

She has found that stress is a strong influencer on what we eat, and that what we eat in turn can affect our mental health and our subsequent ability to handle stressful situations.

So why do we choose ‘bad’ foods when stressed?

Being time-poor is a big factor in choosing unhealthy foods when we’re stressed, Dr Torres says. ‘We have busy jobs and lives, and often not enough time. When this happens, we often seek out fast, convenient options such as takeaway. Research has also shown people tend to eat more when they are stressed, leading to the consumption of foods with higher kilojoules but with not a lot of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.’

However, not all stress is the same, and we can respond differently to different types of stress. ‘What we eat and when we eat does have a lot to do with the type of stress we’re experiencing,’ Dr Torres says. ‘Research has shown that chronic daily stress releases cortisol, and in studies this has been linked to increasing our appetite or drive for sweet, fatty foods.’

For example, students studying during the exam period or workers feeling under pressure in their jobs tend to crave ‘bad foods’. But when someone experiences extreme or traumatic stress, such as a death in the family, this different kind of stress tends to suppress appetite.

Currently, Dr Torres is studying the links in children between salt intake and stress levels. When comparing salt and levels of the stress hormone cortisol in urine, Dr Torres and her team have found that children with higher salt levels have correspondingly higher levels of cortisol. This indicates that salt may be having a detrimental effect on health by increasing cortisol levels. Dr Torres believes population salt reduction programs may help to reduce cortisol levels in children, and help reduce the impacts of stress.

'Research has shown that chronic daily stress releases cortisol, and in studies this has been linked to increasing our appetite or drive for sweet, fatty foods.'

Dr Susan Torres,
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University

How to prevent stress derailing your diet

Know your triggers. Dr Torres suggests working to recognise times of stress and plan ahead.

Organising healthy meal and snack food options ahead of time will also help you make better choices when you’re stressed. ‘So for example, during that busy time for students studying during exams, choose to bring healthier food along to avoid temptation,’ Dr Torres says.

‘Find healthier options that fit in with your lifestyle, so you’re not tempted to fall back on fast food,’ she adds. ‘This could mean meal prepping on the Sunday for the week ahead and making sure you have a good mix or vegetables, meat and carbs, stocking up on frozen vegies so you always have some on hand, or choosing to have healthy food boxes delivered once a week that take the stress out of deciding what’s for dinner. For me, I get the kids involved and we chop lots of fruit for the week into portions, ready to go for a healthy snack.’

Another handy tip is to avoid the shops when you’re stressed, Dr Torres advises. ‘Steer clear of the supermarket when you’re hungry or frazzled. When you’re pressed for time or thinking about food, you’re more likely to pick up easy or quick options which often results in over consumption of unhealthier foods.’

Need some healthy snack inspiration? Check out our recipes for healthy(ish) nachos and gooey goodness brownies.  

Interested in learning more about the links between diet and health? Check out Deakin’s range of food, nutrition and dietetics courses.


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Dr Susan Torres
Dr Susan Torres

Senior lecturer in nutrition, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences and Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) member, Deakin University

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