How You React to Stress May Affect How Your Clothes Fit
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.
"Cortisol and negative mood may reflect greater vulnerability to stress," Epel says. "It may also be that cortisol is directly affecting appetite. Cortisol can increase insulin, which stimulates appetite."
The bottom line: "If you're an emotional eater, you will likely have trouble keeping weight off," she tells WebMD.
"Epel has provided several pieces to the puzzle," says Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and author of Fight Fat After Forty.
What Peeke calls "toxic stress" is "defined as any stress that is long term and associated with a perception of helplessness, hopelessness, and a sense of defeat," she says. "It's having a micromanaging boss, rotten marriage for 10 years, kid who is a juvenile delinquent -- and you're trying real hard to be resilient about it."
The result: Stress causes cortisol levels to be elevated all the time, and that tends to facilitate the deposit of fat deep in the belly, Peeke says. That kind of fat is the most dangerous to health, she says. "It's what I call "toxic fat" -- that deeply deposited intra-abdominal fat that occurs in thin people. It's the people who have thin legs, thin arms, and the little bowling-ball belly.
"She found that you don't have to be fat to have that toxic weight. You can be of average weight," Peeke tells WebMD. And "it can happen as early as age 30 in women. That deep-belly fat is caused by toxic stress. It's what I've said before, that it's not just what you weigh, it's where you weigh it. It's those extra 5, 6, 7 pounds deep in your belly [that] is part of the "metabolic syndrome" -- the constellation of toxic weight, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and cancer," she says.