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Mind Over Matter continued...

In fact, it may be our bodies' initial response to rising levels of cortisol that teaches us there is comfort in sugary or starchy foods.

"During the first couple of days following a stressful event, cortisol is giving you a clue to eat high-carbohydrate foods," Perfetti tells WebMD. "Once you comply, you quickly learn a behavioral response that you can feel almost destined to repeat anytime you feel stressed."

Now for the good news: Whether your urge to eat is driven by hormones or habits or a combination of both, research shows there are ways to interrupt the cycle, break the stress and stop the weight gain.

Here's what the experts recommend:

1. Exercise. This is the best stress-buster -- and also happens to be good for you in lots of other ways. "It not only burns calories, when you move your body, even with a simple activity such as walking, you begin to produce a cascade of biochemicals, at least some of which counter the negative effects of stress hormones -- as well as control insulin and sugar levels," says Talbott.

At the same time, Ginsburg notes that exercising too hard for too long can raise cortisol levels and actually increase stress. The answer, he says is to choose an activity you really enjoy doing -- be it an aerobic sport like running or a calmer activity such as Pilates -- and then keep workouts to a length that doesn't exhaust you (this could be as little as 20 minutes a day, three to five days a week).

2. Eat a balanced diet -- and never skip a meal. "Eat breakfast -- and try to consume six small rather than three huge meals a day, with foods from all the food groups," Ginsberg tells WebMD. This helps keep blood sugar levels steady, which in turn put a damper on insulin production and eventually reduce cortisol levels -- all helping to control appetite and weight.

3. Don't lose sleep, over your weight problems or your stress -- When we don't get enough rest, cortisol levels rise, making us feel hungry and less satisfied with the food we do eat, Ginsberg says.

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