Stress-Eating and Can’t Stop? New Research Just Found a Scientific Explanation

Updated: Feb. 29, 2024

Stress-eating is often triggered by unhealthy forces we wish we could shut out from our lives, and can lead to shame and regret. New research may help you empathize with your drives.

Bed-rotting was a phenomenon that gained attention in 2023…but its close cousin stress-eating has been an old standby for ages. Scientists are clear that stress can cause shifts in many physiological functions, from sleep to blood pressure and heart attack risk.

If you’ve ever experienced weight gain that was possibly related to stress, science has just landed on a possible new explanation behind why stress causes us to gain weight. Past research has helped illuminate how the sudden rise of “fight or flight” hormones like cortisol can cause the body to store fat instead of utilizing it for energy. Now, researchers have found that stress may also change the way food tastes, which can lead to overeating.

stress eating study ice creamGrace Cary/getty images

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For a study, a clinical psychology team in China hypothesized that stress might alter a person’s taste perception and reduce the reward they get from food, potentially causing them to eat more to achieve the same level of satisfaction.

Published in the April 2024 issue of the journal Physiology & Behavior, their study gathered 76 participants between 18 and 35 years old. Each participant completed a 10-item scale to assess their levels of perceived stress. They were then grouped into low- or high-stress categories for a taste test.

After a short period of fasting, they were invited to a testing location to sample two foods. During the test, they rated the flavor of the food, how it made them feel, and ultimately why they stopped eating.

Both groups were given an overly large amount of either a sweet banana soup or corn soup to provide both sweet and savory sensations. They were instructed to eat as much as they wanted until they felt full. They were asked to rate the flavor after holding it in their mouths and assess it on a satisfaction scale. They also rated the smell of the food and sniffed it with closed mouths to prevent the scent from affecting their desire for the food.

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The researchers found that individuals who were highly stressed didn’t enjoy the taste of the food as much as those with low stress levels.

While there wasn’t a significant difference in the amount consumed between the groups in the test environment, this indicated that a normal portion of food might not satisfy someone experiencing high stress. This could lead them to continue seeking satisfaction from food unconsciously.

The researchers noted that part of the appeal of food is its flavor, and when that is dulled, the reward is reduced. “An important factor in the cessation of an eating episode and the prevention of overeating is the hedonic decline of the food,” they explained. Essentially, we tend to stop eating when the food finally no longer feels rewarding.

To further investigate the effects of high stress levels, the researchers suggest a need for more studies using foods that the participants normally like. While both groups rated the chosen foods similarly tasty, results could differ for more appealing foods. Additionally, each group received either a sweet or savory food, so further testing could explore whether the type of food affects satisfaction levels differently for stressed and unstressed individuals.