By Laura Ugokwe, RD

Stress is all too common in our fast-paced society. On average, 25% of Americans report being under a high level of stress and 50% experience a moderate amount of stress [1]. Stress can make you abandon your best intentions of healthy eating and lead you straight to the cookie jar. Before you blame your food choices on a lack of willpower, it’s important to understand the contributing factors between stress and cravings. Understanding the link between your appetite and your environment will create awareness and the opportunity to make healthier decisions when you are anxious.

Stress triggers your body’s “fight or flight” response, a survival mechanism that tells your body to react quickly to life-threatening situations. Physiological stress, such as an impending deadline at work, promotes a specific eating behavior. Studies show that under stress, people not only increase food consumption, they also eat foods higher in fat [2]. A study on female college students who reported higher perceived stress ate more sweets, fast foods, and fewer fruits and vegetables than those who were less stressed [3].

Long-term stress can have compounding effects on health and well-being. Chronic stress is linked to obesity, both as a result of overeating and decreasing sleep and physical activity. Although your body will crave “comfort” foods during times of stress, focus on eating a balanced diet. Low-fat, high-fiber meals with adequate fruits and vegetables will give your body the energy and nutrients needed to boost your immune system and stay healthy during stressful times.

[1] [2] Zellner, Debra A., et al. “Food selection changes under stress.” Physiology & Behavior 87.4 (2006): 789-793. [3] Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K. “Stress, Food, and Inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the Cutting Edge.” Psychosomatic medicine 72.4 (2010): 365–