We eat chocolate to celebrate good times, to give us an energy boost when we’re flagging or simply for that sweet, creamy flavour. But there is another, more negative emotion that drives us to consume the sweet stuff – stress.


High-sugar treats such as chocolate, biscuits, sweets and cakes provide a welcome distraction from our cares. However, according to Australian scientists, eating high-calorie comfort food when you’re under duress could be creating changes in your brain that make you eat more – and giving you an even bigger sweet tooth into the bargain.

Researchers at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney recently found that when mice were chronically stressed their satiety signals were turned off, meaning that they didn’t feel full and continued to eat, which led to weight gain.
“We showed that chronic stress, combined with a high-calorie diet, can drive more and more food intake as well as a preference for sweet, highly palatable food, thereby promoting weight gain and obesity,” says the June study's senior author, Professor Herbert Herzog.

So why are stress, sugar cravings and comfort eating so intertwined? Nutritionist Jenna Hope explains all.

Spoonful of sugar

Why do we crave sugar when we’re stressed?

“When we eat high-fat and high-sugar foods, such as chocolate, it provides what’s known as a ‘hedonic’ effect,” she says. “This means that we feel good on those foods and as a result while we’re eating them we’re not secreting as much of the stress hormone cortisol, so we feel calmer.”

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Why do we tend to overeat when we’re comfort eating?

“When we’re stress-eating it’s harder to control the amount of food that we’re consuming. In a stressed state you’re more likely to eat more and faster, and you’ll find yourself eating a biscuit, and then another one, and so on,” she explains. “The brain is saying ‘that feels good, I didn’t feel stressed while eating that’. The chances are that once you’ve stopped eating you’ll feel stressed again and crave more sugar and more fat. The brain is telling you ‘that’s what made me feel calm before, let’s try that again’."

Read more about stress, how it affects weight gain and tips for managing anxiety

Biscuits in a jar

Are there other ways that stress can make us hungry?

Stress can have a negative impact on sleep, which, in turn, boosts appetite even more,” says Jenna. “If someone is going through a period of chronic stress, that can impact sleep. When sleep is poor, the hunger hormone ghrelin increases, so you’re more likely to feel hungry. At the same time, leptin, the hormone that tells you when you’re full, decreases, so you need more food to get to the same level of fullness that you’d feel after a normal night’s sleep.”


How do you break the cycle of comfort eating?

“You can’t just tell yourself not to comfort eat. You need to identify the triggers first and then find an activity that lowers your stress. Track your eating patterns in a food diary and, once you’ve created a picture of your comfort-eating triggers, look into activities that lower your cortisol. That might be sitting with a cup of tea, going for a walk or doing five to 10 minutes of meditation,” she says.

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