Tag Archives: stress response

Stress Eater? Emotional Eater? Whatever kind of ‘eater’ you are, there’s probably a physiological reason

26 Jan

This is a feature I drafted while on work placement at Frank PR last January, to promote a new dietary aid from XLS Medical.

What kind of eater are you?

Copycat Eater

We tend to adopt the eating habits of those around us. If your boyfriend habitually snarfs a bacon sarnie or pays a 2am visit to Chicken Cottage on his way home after a night out, this legitimises your kebab pit-stop after a girls’ night out.

If you feel more comfortable eating pizza with those girlfriends who are more of a comfy size than going bar-hopping with the size-zero girlfriend – maybe just because you look and feel better about yourself in their company, -bear in mind that you become who you eat with.

A 2007 study from Harvard University took 32 years’ of data from an inter-linked social network of 12,000 adults and found a person’s chance of becoming obese rose by 37% if their spouse had become obese; 40% if a sibling had; and 57% if a friend had.

Emotional Eater

Perhaps instead of confronting your difficult or negative emotions, you reach for something to plug the void. You don’t want to have to analyse the reasons for your friendship problems, or admit to yourself that the love of your life hardly acknowledges your existence. So you allow yourself a chocolate biscuit. Or one, or two, or three.

Studies have found high levels of obesity in those who have difficulty forming close relationships, perhaps because of childhood issues or some history of relationship abuse. Interestingly, this link between obesity and abuse has only been found in women. Men have other coping mechanisms. It is time you stopped and fought against this ‘coping’ behaviour that has evolved from a societal perception and objectification of women.

Learn to love yourself, and accept that other people can and will love you too. Then you can make a conscious decision to develop healthier habits.

Careless Eater

Studies have found that people whose lives are marked by a lack of self-control typically show higher levels of obesity. Maintaining a healthy diet takes planning and, extreme caution around high-fat foods. If you get home at night without the energy to cook and make yourself a pile of baked beans and toast loaded with cheese, you have only yourself to blame for lack of foresight. Don’t settle for the easy option.

Moreover, there are hidden calories in everything. Dollop of ketchup is another thirty or forty. And careful with the butter – a large serving, melting and dripping off the bread just the way you like it – that’s another sixty calories. Per slice.

Eating Out of Boredom

Maybe you lack something to do with your hands. Perhaps you’ve just given up biting your nails. Is this the reason you find yourself compelled to keep reaching for the popcorn at the cinema; to keep digging your fist into the tin of Quality Streets someone left on the coffee table.

Chronic boredom is actually a condition known as “anhedonia”, defined as a neurobiologically-reduced sensitivity to pleasurable experiences. By constantly seeking easy gratification in the form of very sweet or salty foods, long-term you impair your ability to feel pleasure. Brain scans have shown similarly reduced density of dopamine receptors (dopamine being the pleasure chemical) in obese people as cocaine users.

So try to minimise the presence of sweet, fatty and salty foods in your diet, and also the way you use them to ‘treat yourself’. This is a dangerous association to build; instead get recreational enjoyment from a wide range of (brain) activities.

Stress Eater

Do you hit the biscuit tin in times of stress? There may be a biological reason, though it depends on the type of stress you are suffering from. If the stress is one your brain interprets as a ‘challenge’ it is capable of dealing with, it takes a neurological shortcut and activates the sympathetic-adrenomedullar (SAM) system directly, bypassing to some extent the first site of response; the SAM is the pathway responsible for the production of adrenaline. Adrenaline diverts blood to the brain and muscles, and away from non-essential activities like digestion. People suffering this type of stress often end up eating less.

HOWEVER if the stressor is perceieved as a ‘threat’, another hormonal pathway, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) gland is activated. The HPA is principally responsible for the release of cortisol or corticosterone. Cortisol stimulates hunger and feeding, so an excess of cortisol can trigger resort to highly palatable – i.e. tasty and high-calorie – foods.

With humans, if “threat stress” includes a threat to one’s social self concept, like having an aspect of public embarrassment or failure, it is an even more potent trigger of cortisol release.[1]


[1] Dickerson SS, Gruenewald TL, Kemeny ME. When the social self is

threatened: shame, physiology, and health. J Pers 2004;72:1191–216.

[21] Goeders NE. The impact of stress on addiction. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol