Simple strategies to stop stress-related overeating

Managing emotionally driven weight gain requires planning ahead.

How much and when you eat isn't driven just by hunger, which you likely already know if you've ever found yourself hunched over a bowl of ice cream after having a particularly stressful day. Stress can set off a cascade of physical reactions in your body that may not only drive you to eat more and make you crave less nutritious, fattening comfort foods, but also help you pack on extra pounds much more easily.

"Stress drives up levels of a hormone called cortisol in the blood," says Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that helps to regulate your metabolism. It also plays a role in blood sugar management and memory. When levels of cortisol rise, it can promote inflammation and may spur the body to start stockpiling fat around the midsection. "Stress might also disrupt sleep and drive people to seek out food when they wouldn't normally — such as in the middle of the night," says Dr. Stanford.

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