How to Hack Your Stress-Induced Hunger

nutrition wellness Dec 07, 2021
How to Hack Your Stress-Induced Hunger


This week at we explore how to hack your stress-induced hunger.  When times get tough, our time for the preparation of nutritious foods may be limited. Changes in approach to food preparation can help to avoid the eating pitfalls of the stress response.  



The Science Behind Stress and Hunger

During times of stress, the body sends a signal to the adrenal glands to request support. The adrenal glands are two triangular-shaped organs that sit above the kidneys. 

How the Body Reacts to Stress

The interaction between the brain and the adrenal gland during times of stress and cortisol.

Adrenal glands:

1.   Produce the stress hormone (cortisol)

2.   Make epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline)

3.   Generate sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone)


During times of high anxiety or impending doom, the body makes adrenaline, which serves to rev up the system and to escape danger.  The body also makes cortisol, which stimulates hunger and retention of water and fat.  Cortisol allows you to get more food/fuel in your body and to store more nutrients and water.  In this situation, the body is preparing for times when nutrition is limited.


A result of increased production of cortisol is decreased production of sex hormones. The body uses similar building blocks to make cortisol and sex hormones when most of the building blocks are used to make cortisol, there are fewer building blocks available to make sex hormones. Low sex hormone states interfere with sex drive and these hormones also play important roles in maintaining lean muscle and energy levels.


Danger in the Modern World is Maladaptive

These responses are really helpful in situations of danger.  However, in the modern world, we are rarely put in situations dangerous enough to warrant these responses.  For us, a fight with a coworker or a missed night of sleep can trigger the same response.  In these situations, this response becomes maladaptive and causes us to eat more, eat poorly, gain weight and to feel terrible. These choices likely lead to increased stress and a cycle develops.



Cortisol used to help hack our internal defense against stress like tigers.

Cortisol Impacts Macronutrients and Satiety Hormones

At times of stress, you may get cravings for odd things (sugar and fat) as your body is trying to fuel up for what lies ahead. Easiest sources of fuel for the body are simple carbohydrates or sugars.  The body spends little to no energy to turn sugar into glucose and fructose.  Then, your body absorbs these carbs and uses them quickly to address the stressor. 


In addition to carbs, the body craves FAT during times of stress.  This is because fat is a great form of energy storage (8-9 kcal/gram) and it is one of the building blocks for cortisol.  Hence, you crave FAT.



The American diet is loaded with stress-fuel FAT and SUGAR

Added to this macronutrient demand is the influence of cortisol on the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin.  Ghrelin has a circadian rhythm and the levels of ghrelin are greatly influenced by cortisol.  If cortisol goes up, ghrelin goes up.  When ghrelin goes up, so does HUNGER.  Leptin goes down during stress states, therefore you are not satiated as easily.  The cumulative response is stress-eating and cravings that cannot be satisfied! 


See the infographic below for a summary.


Breaking the Maladaptive Cycle

Managing stress-hunger can be achieved by addressing the stressor itself or by modifying your response to the stressor.  Please SEE OUR ARTICLE on 6 Ways to Manage Stress When S*** is Hitting the Fan, this will get you on the path to mindfulness and approaching stressors in a different manner allowing greater resilience and decreased stress response. 



Sleep is vital for balancing stress and hunger


SLEEP hygiene also plays a role in managing the stress response!  Dysfunction of sleep is central to most human health issues.  FIX sleep and you won’t tell your body that you are in crisis constantly!  SEE Our Articles on SLEEP (Why, 3 Strategies, Things to Avoid and Natural Remedies).  Dreaming is vital to soothing your tired adrenals.  Improved sleep will limit your stress response and get your hormones and cortisol levels in check again.


During Times of Stress Make Nutrition a Priority

Maintaining healthy nutrition is a GREAT WAY to avoid metabolic disasters.  Stressed people embrace the cortisol drive and EAT TERRIBLE FOOD, meaning:



Fried fat and sugar, the dream of your stress hormones

–       Tons of Sugar

–       Lots of Simple Carbs

–       Too much Trans-Fat


This is essentially the typical American dining experience.  It is easy, you grab it and go, making food seem less stressful. While obtaining food in this way may feel easy, the response within the body is a stressor.  However, veggies are the food packed with nutrients that you need in times of stress more than ever.


How to Hack Your Stress-Induced Hunger

Big Fat Nutrients are Needed to Fight Stress, Which You Won’t Get In Junk Food

At the top of this list are GOOD FATS.  Essentially this means non-trans fats which are found in most processed, fried foods. Other fats, particularly unsaturated fats, are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids are vital for your stress response. 


As stated above you will crave fat in times of stress. I am not opposed to fat intake and do not recommend excessive fat restriction. Rather, accept the body’s request for fat by taking in GOOD fats. These are found in wild-caught fish, nuts, and oils.  In fact, you will use these fats to assist your stress hormones.  After all, fat is a building block in the production of most hormones. Fulfilling the body’s request for fats also will help with curbing hunger and allowing satiety. 



Change your stress demand for fat with GOOD fats with omega-3 fatty acids.


If needed, you can take an omega-3s supplement if you have a nut allergy or are unable to eat wild-caught fish.  In this case, you can choose krill or fish-based sources, or algae-based if you are particularly environmentally conscious.


Many of these foods also contain tryptophan, which can help with serotonin creation, a hormone that battles cortisol to mitigate stress.  Tryptophan can be found in dairy and poultry as well and will boost your mood during tough times.


For more on FAT, SEE our article on FATS.   


Tyrosine Can Help Support Your Adrenal Glands

What about your poor tired adrenals?  They have been releasing stress hormones and are just worn out. This is termed adrenal fatigue, which as the name sounds, will make you fatigued as well. 


In addition to eating well and sleeping well, tyrosine and tyrosine-rich foods may help to support the adrenal system. You can try supplementing, just start LOW, wait 1-2 weeks and GO slow.  The reason why I say this is that certain people may have sleep issues or feel anxious with tyrosine (due to higher adrenaline). Take the supplement in the morning for this reason.


Foods containing tyrosine include poultry, dairy, nuts, legumes, seeds, soy, and avocado. 


Let Veggies and Fruits Help with Tamping Down Stress Effects

Fruits and veggies are packed with stress-fighting power and these powers are best harnessed by eating frozen varieties or eating locally-sourced produce.  Complex carbohydrates (the ones that your body has to work to break down) contain the building blocks for serotonin (see above). 



Complex carbs modulate stress through serotonin.

Many fruits and veggies also contain vital nutrients like vitamin C and magnesium both of which can boost your mood, improve your sleep quality, and strengthen your immune system.  Vitamin C also can directly act on cortisol to reduce its levels.  Food sources of vitamin C include citrus, broccoli, cauliflower. Sources of both vitamin C and magnesium include leafy green veggies.


How to Easily Prepare Nutritious Foods When Time is an Issue

Preparing veggies does not have to be difficult.  You can add complexity, however, it is not necessary to lend flavor.


The easiest way to manage nutritious food prep is to buy vegetables that are frozen. Then, you open the package and pour it into your lunch/dinner container, which will proportion the amount for you. Fresh, pre-cut veggies are an option here, but be aware that the nutritional content of foods that are not locally sourced is poorer.



Hack your stress-induced hunger with easy, prepared complex carbs.

If you have more time, buy fresh, locally sourced veggies.  You will need essentially four units for the week, per person, slightly more if you train or have higher athletic demands.


Time Stressed Food Preparation For People in a Hurry

Here is a sequence that I follow when I want fresh veggies and I don’t have a lot of time:

  • Wash all veggies, then chop off the stems or ends.
  • If you have a food processor, put the veggies into the processor and it will chop everything for you. 
  • No food processor, chop them in larger portions or even roast whole, then cut after. 
  • There are certain foods, like carrots, where roasting whole maintains a higher nutrition value than roasting in pieces. 



Food prep does not have to take long for stress-induced hunger hacking


The general rule of thumb I use is 425 F for the oven x 30 min, more if roasting dense root veggies, potatoes, or the pan is really full (40-60 min).  Add healthy oils (olive), salt and pepper, and 1-2 types of herbs.  Portion these into your bowls and you will be ready to go for the whole week.  Don’t forget to add in a protein source for lunch. If I am really short on time, I often place the protein on top of the veggies in the oven!


This method of preparing food ahead of time takes out the decision of what to eat or how to get food in times of stress when we are particularly vulnerable to the “quick and easy” options that have poor nutritional value. For a further discussion about Food Prep Strategies, Please, link to our article (Starting, 3 Strategies, Final Step).



During times of stress, our bodies have a survival-based response, based upon high cortisol and ghrelin, which will leave you hungry for a lot of food, simple carbs, sugar, and fat.  Unless you are being chased by a bear, this response is maladaptive in our modern society.  Fix your sleep and answer your body with nutritious foods which will help to hack your stress-induced hunger!

(that Your Doctor Won’t Tell You)

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