Does Stress Eating Work?

In October, the American Psychological Association released a report on what people are stressed about, and the answers are many. The current cultural climate, including gun violence, sexual harassment, the immigration mess, student debt, social media madness, and the general constant upheaval and confusion emanating from Washington are the current rock stars of stress.

In the background, the old standbys still faithfully do their part — health, school, work, money, personal relationships. Anyone looking for an excuse to indulge in stress eating has plenty of raw material to work with.

Let’s go off on a terminology digression, because according to A. Janet Tomiyama, director of UCLA’s Dieting, Stress, and Health Lab, even experts disagree. She sees comfort eating and stress eating as the same thing in different words. Stress is the stimulus that induces the person to eat; comfort is the result. The urge to escape stress = the urge to attain comfort.

It’s the same kind of kind of semantic confusion we hear in talk about “drug abuse” and “child abuse.” In one case, the drug is the instrument a person employs to abuse himself. In the other, the child is the entity being abused. But for some odd reason, we irrationally call them both “_____ abuse.” When someone says they are taking donations for muscular dystrophy, that is not accurate. Actually, they are against the disease, and collecting money to prevent or cure it, or help people afflicted by it.

Of course, when it comes to imprecise language, the battle was already lost when we accepted “I could care less” as meaning the exact opposite. The point is, for many professionals in the field, comfort/stress eating lives under the larger umbrella of “emotional eating,” which covers a whole lot of territory.

But does it work?

Of course! In different ways, for different people for different reasons. But it does, in the short term, anyway, and humans are suckers for a quick fix. So are rodents, but they don’t know any better — unlike humans, who know better but do it anyway. The psychology professor, interviewed by journalist Rachel Sugar, says if lab mice can get comfort food,

[…] it dampens down their brain’s responsivity to stress, it dampens down the signaling between the brain and the rest of the body, so they don’t secrete as many stress hormones.

Problem is, of course, the shortening-and-sugar mouse meals have long-term effects, and so do the comfort foods chosen by humans, replete with fat, sugar, carbohydrates, additives, and other ingredients either proven or suspected to be obesogenic and/or detrimental to some bodily system. But, says Tomiyama,

It seems to be effective. Not just psychologically, but also biologically — people who do a lot of comfort eating tend to show a reduced level of stress hormones and stress.

This may be responsible for the Jolly Fat Person stereotype that has haunted the collective unconscious. Apparently, it is possible to de-stress if you don’t mind weighing 450 pounds or dealing with the associated co-morbidities.

Fat and sugar light up the brain’s reward centers enough to override negative emotions. In this way, comfort food is like a bandage that hides the suppurating wound beneath. Not an ideal solution. Tomiyama also mentioned research which, although highly speculative, points to the abdominal fat pad, which may have a way of signaling the brain to produce fewer stress hormones.

Another factor is good old operant conditioning. If something bad happened and Mom gave you a hug and a cookie, and this was repeated enough times, eventually the cookie provides comfort even without the hug.

But is this because, through repeated association, the cookie symbolically becomes a hug? Or is it because kids just like cookies anyway? Even the youngest child can usually be comforted by a sweet treat without a hug. Babies are said to be anesthetized by sugar alone, even when undergoing circumcision.

Could a baby be comforted by a spoonful of raw, pureed broccoli? How can we ever know? The experiment is already tainted, because all humans are fed sugar from Day One.

Does a connection have to start in infancy? What if we started with children old enough to have teeth, and disregarded their previous diets? What if we gave them hug+carrot, hug+carrot, lots of times? And then eliminated the hugs and gave just the carrots. Would that be enough? Could we see a new generation of people capable of obtaining emotional solace from carrots?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Stress in America,”, October 2018
Source: “Does stress eating actually make you less stressed?,”, 11/09/18
Photo credit: Lindsey Jene Scalera (linsight) on Visualhunt/CC BY-NC-SA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

FAQs and Media Requests: Click here…

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources