Stress Eating and Bariatric Surgery

Steph Wagner

February 16, 2022

Stress Eating and Bariatric Surgery

What is it about stress that drives us to food?


Why did my child’s meltdown make me want popcorn and chocolate?

On the video lesson for this topic I told a story about stress coming in the form of parenting.  My daughters daily transition home from school got the better of me and I lost my cool.

It did take over an hour or so for me to recover myself (my heart felt like it was racing for too long) but in the hours that followed I was genuinely craving popcorn and chocolate.  What is that?



Cortisol, the Stress Hormone

You may have heard about cortisol before and you may already associate it with stress.

This hormone is kicked out of the adrenal gland on top of the kidney. It’s a really powerful hormone with a laundry list of important jobs including regulating blood pressure. When a stressful event happens, the body kicks out extra cortisol into the blood as the body’s fight or flight system.

This is a good thing. While stress is no fun, cortisol is also what allows us to react and get to safety if danger arises.

Cortisol increases appetite and can make you crave sugary, salty and fatty foods because your brain think sit needs fuel to fight off whatever threat is causing the stress.

(This does make me laugh by the way. My 6 year olds after school meltdowns were telling my brain I needed chocolate to fuel myself to handle the threat 😂 At least that’s how I’m seeing it!)



Cortisol remains elevated for hours

What is extra fascinating to me is that 15 minutes after the onset of stress, cortisol rises systemically and remains elevated in the blood for several hours.

This made sense to me in my example because even though it had been hours since my daughter came home from school, the cravings were still intense.

It seems we may end a stressful day thinking of food because of both the connection the brain has made to food and if cortisol has remained elevated after a particular stressful trigger.


How to manage stress eating

Stress management is important for all of us. What we do know is that long term stress is really hard on our health.

After we have a stressful event and thus elevated cortisol, the key is recovering from that event and getting to a calm state so the body knows there is no threat.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System in the body is just that system. It’s referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system. It relaxes us after emergency has passed. (What a beautiful thing!)

There are ways to engage the parasympathetic system in the body that allows for the peace to come. The Vagus Nerve in the body is what stimulates the parasympathetic system which then reduces our experience of stress.

When you see this list, it will make you think of things associated with finding peace and calm because thats what your brain does with these things!

Spend time in nature
Deep breathing from the diaphragm
Repetitive prayer
Focus on a word that is soothing such as calm or peace
Play with animals or children
Practice yoga or tai chi
Calm Music


Stress Eater Homework

Let’s recap this information and have a little homework.

Stress releases cortisol into the blood. A powerful hormone that increases appetite because the body thinks it needs fuel to fight off a threat.

Cortisol remains elevated in the blood hours after the stress event.

Engaging the vagus nerve signals to the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body and that there is no longer a threat.

Here are three pieces of homework to consider

Practice stress relieving exercises in advance to help your brain think of them when you need them (ex: have a calm music playlist ready or a YouTube breathing exercise video saved)

Keep food on hand that you feel you can have control over. This might mean having protein chips or other pre-portioned items (instead of going out to find something)

After a stressful event after you feel calm, think through the stressor. Can anything be delegated or changed?

(Real life example: I asked a neighbor to start bringing my daughter home from school. Changing our routine broke our tough transition and we’re in a much better place!)



Stay tuned We’ll cover more emotions in the Emotional Eating Blog Series.

Click here for the introduction blog that covers the system in the body that causes emotional eating.

Click here for the blog on bored eating.


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