It’s Official: Stress Makes Us Crave Junk Food

Have you ever noticed you reach for junk foods when you feel stressed? Maybe you don’t feel you have the energy to cook something healthy or you add a little something into the basket on your way home because you deserve it.

Comfort eating on repeat is all too real — and now we know the science behind it.


A study published in Neuron has shown that eating high-calorie foods while feeling stressed can cause brain changes that increase cravings for it. Ooof, slippery slope.

These foods — call them comfort, junk, high calorie… potato, potato — activate the reward centre in the brain. Over time, if this craving is given into often rather than as the occasional indulgence, this cause and effect (stress hormones, such as cortisol and food) can create unhealthy associations and increase the chance of consuming them.

On an average day, the brain region responsible for stopping us overeating — the lateral habenula — would neutralise the reward we get from comfort eating, meaning it becomes less appealing.

Researchers found that in times of stress, the brain’s reaction to being satiated was overridden. Essentially, the lateral habenula stays shtum. This means junk food continues to press those ‘reward’ buttons, boosting feel-good hormones, such as dopamine, in the short term.

What’s The Catch?

High in calories, fats, sugars, carbs and most other things we don’t want an excess of on the reggo. These foods not only cause weight gain but a wide range of other changes, including sleep and hormonal issues.

The catch-22 is these can then lead to stress. This creates an unhealthy cycle of stress, junk food, sleep, repeat.

Though it can feel challenging to make an effort to make something nourishing when we’re feeling sub-par, healthy subscription boxes, frozen meals and a few easy recipes can make the difference between pizza every day and a healthy, balanced diet.

This article by Rebecca Gillam was originally published on Women’s Health UK.

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