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How You React to Stress May Affect How Your Clothes Fit

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Hand me the candy jar -- it's been that kind of day. When feeling frazzled, we likely reach for some soothing chocolate. Now, new research confirms those urges: Stress makes you eat more -- especially more sweets -- because it increases levels of a hormone called cortisol. That's bad news, because fat created by cortisol is the "deep-belly" kind, which, one expert says, is known to increase health risks.

"We found that women who had high levels of cortisol after a stressful event tend to eat more calories, especially more sweets," says the study's lead author, Elissa Epel, PhD, a health psychology researcher at the University of California at San Francisco.

In her study, Epel and colleagues selected a group of 59 women with an average age of 36 -- all without any signs of depression or eating disorder -- and tested them in a stressful situation. To rule out the effects of premenstrual syndrome and sex hormones, "we made sure each was in the same time in their cycle," Epel tells WebMD.

To create a stressful environment, Epel asked each woman to do the same challenging task -- but didn't give any enough time to complete the task.

After both sessions, each woman went to a quiet room where they sat alone, reading or listening to music. They also had a basket of snacks in front of them. "We didn't pressure them, merely invited them to eat," says Epel. "None of the women was aware that their choices of snack foods were being studied."

The snacks to choose from: sweet and salty snacks, and high-fat and low-fat snacks. The higher-fat sweet snacks were chocolate granola bars and potato chips, and two low-fat sweet and salty snacks were flavored sweetened rice cakes and salty pretzels. Each woman was told she could request additional servings, but very few did, Epel says.

After each woman left the "snack room," the amount eaten was assessed -- including the amount of serving and nutrient content, and total calories of all snacks eaten. Researchers assessed the women's mood and they also measured cortisol levels.

They found that those who reacted most to the stressful event through mood and higher cortisol levels also ate more, and especially more of the sweet snacks. On average, "high reactors" ate a total of about two sweet servings, whereas "low reactors" ate about 1.4 sweet servings.

When they compared the stressful day with a nonstressful day, no increases in cortisol or eating were seen.

Previous studies have not made this link between cortisol and increased eating after stress, Epel tells WebMD. "Animal studies have shown that cortisol increases hunger. ... That's indeed what we found [in humans] -- that women who reacted to stress the most also ate the most.

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