Stress Effects Eating Disorders

During the “fight or flight” response, your body sends large amounts of blood to the brain, heart and muscles to fuel your physical response to impending danger. As blood diverts away from the digestive system, the body prepares to deal with the stressor. Although logic would tell us that the stress response would make the idea of eating unappealing, stress is actually a major trigger to eat in many individuals. This unhealthy eating pattern can be the start of eating disorders. Find out about stress and eating disorders, and whether stress causes obesity.

Stress and Eating Disorders: A Possible Link

During the flight or fight response, the body releases the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, which prepares many of the body’s systems to deal with danger, including the:

  • Circulatory system
  • Heart
  • Immune system
  • Lungs
  • Metabolism
  • Skin.

Interestingly enough, people with anorexia and bulimia have shown chronically elevated levels of cortisol in blood tests. While this indicates a probable link between stress and eating disorders, the question still remains as to whether stress led to the disorders or the disorders themselves led to a change in stress hormone levels.

Dieting, Stress and Eating

Although each person has a unique approach to eating, eating patterns generally fall more or less into two major categories:

  • Restrained eating, which involves controlling the type and amount of food consumed, such as an individual on a diet.
  • Unrestrained eating, which involves eating whatever you desire whenever you feel hungry.

According to studies published in Psychological Bulletin (1994) and Appetite (2004), restrained eaters tend to eat more during times of stress, while unrestrained eaters cut back on food when they are stressed. This research indicated that restrained eaters are more likely to binge during stress, one possible way that stress causes obesity.

Research published in Preventative Medicine (2002) revealed a link between body mass index (BMI) and stress-driven eating. Subjects with the highest BMI were those who consumed high-calorie foods–like chocolate, hamburgers and sausages–when stressed.

Coping Tips for Stress and Eating

If you crave the comfort of food during times of stress, here are a few tips to help you maintain healthy eating patterns:

  • Delay gratification: Wait 15 to 30 minutes and see if you still want that treat.
  • Don’t multitask: Try to eat only when seated and not doing anything else.
  • Eat at regular times: Don’t wait until you’re starving and desperate for food.
  • Forgive yourself: Sometimes you’re going to eat more than you should. Let the past go and remember tomorrow is a new day.
  • Keep a food log: Checking a list of what you’ve already eaten may motivate you not to have that extra serving or dessert.


Ariel, C. (2010). Stress eating. Retrieved September 29, 2010, from

Engel, B. (2007). Causes of eating disorders – Biological factors. Retrieved September 29, 2010, from