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How stress eating might prime the body to store fat

Using a mouse model, researchers discovered that insulin controls a molecular pathway in the brain that activates during stress and leads to more weight gain.

Researchers have long been aware that stress can lead to addiction and increase the risk of disease. Studies have also shown that chronic stress can change eating patterns and affect food choices. Although some people eat less while under stress, most tend to overeat and increase their intake of high-calorie foods.

When stress occurs, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol, which increases appetite and motivates a person to eat, especially foods high in fat, sugar, or both. In combination with high insulin — one of the hormones that control food intake, high cortisol levels are a key factor in so-called stress eating.

Eating patterns vary from person to person, but some research suggests that a person’s biological sex may affect their stress-coping behavior. A Finnish study, which included almost 7,000 adolescents, showed that females were more likely than males to overeat when under stress and had a higher risk of obesity.