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Opinion: Overeating under stress can alter your neurochemistry

Experiencing a way to eat out of a stressful situation —even in the absence of appetite — is a very common occurrence and it is an underrated reason for morbid obesity. 

By Aparna S

April 22, 2024: Stress is an underrated cause of obesity — the gateway for many lifestyle diseases in today’s sedentary world. 

Recent research has unveiled a few facts about stress-induced changes in eating behaviour. 

A person under stress tends to consume food that is high in fat and sugar. This is a matter of concern as it may result in a spiral of diseases such as obesity and lifestyle illness.

Uncontrollable, chronic stress factors alter the mechanism by which the brain handles ‘stress hormone.’ The altered condition leads to a cascade of events — faulty insulin sensitivity, and altered glucose metabolism are a few.


Long-term stress also takes a toll on dopamine functioning which is a key factor in the motivation and reward neurobiology. It all points towards one fact. These food preferences lead to a high-fat, high-sugar diet and subsequent lifestyle diseases.

One interesting research points out that a highly palatable “comfort” food-seeking during stress could be addictive, similar to drug abuse. Stress challenges normal physiology, eating behaviour being one of them. 

Research also found a trend of people choosing more pleasurable and palatable food while stressed. This means an intake of a high-calorie diet. 

It occurs even if the individual is not hungry and is a kind of hedonistic behaviour. “Eating for happiness, not hunger” is observed more in those who are already obese, worsening the problem.

Morbid obesity

Experiencing a way to eat out of a stressful situation —even in the absence of appetite — is a very common occurrence and it is an underrated reason for morbid obesity. 

Also, it has been found that those with higher body mass index are more prone to stress eating than the leaner ones. The reason for this paradox is nothing but a blunted cortisol response to stress caused by the insulin resistance associated with being overweight.

“Emotional eating” or “comfort eating” is referred to an eating behaviour in response to emotions, rather than hunger. 

Prolonged stress is often accompanied by anxiety and depression, making the person seek solace in some “soul food” to dispel negative emotions.

Hedonistic intake of high-calorie foods” is reported particularly high in people with depressive disorders.

Altered sleep patterns

Along with this, altered sleep patterns, physical health problems and restricted diet, all result in faulty eating patterns driven by the heart rather than the brain.

The association between stress eating and obesity is important since the consequences of excessive body weight are serious, including faulty immune system, metabolic alterations, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. 

While a bit of stress can be good as it evokes positively motivated behaviour, prolonged stressful situations will alter the neurochemistry and damage the physiology — eating habits being one of the important ones.

“Food is medicine.”  It would be wise to think twice, before grabbing that 3 a.m. chocolate ice cream tub next time.

(Dr Aparna S is a consultant psychiatrist and an Assistant Professor at the Believers Church Medical College Hospital, Tiruvalla, Kerala. Views expressed are her own and not of an organisation or company.)

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