Stress levels and food choices

Posted June 4, 2021

Everyday stress levels may influence choices on the type of consumed foods, according to a study conducted by the INCT Hormona team, of Hospital de Clínicas de Porto Alegre (RS). The research, entitled “Associations of perceived stress and salivary cortisol with the snack and fast-food dietary pattern in women shift workers,” identified that the highest stress levels led to consumption of high-fat and high-calorie foods. Furthermore, the survey showed the very consumption of these foods in the long term as a compensatory mechanism may alter cortisol levels.

According to Prof. Raquel Canuto, from the Department of Nutrition of School of Medicine of Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRS), the study was pioneer in Brazil in investigating the association between emotional disorders and intake of hyper-palatable food with high fat, sugar, and salt content in women shift workers. “The research assessed stress, which was measured by a perceived stress scale and by salivary cortisol levels in women shift workers,” she explains.

This cross-sectional study assessed 539 women aged 18 to 53 years working in the production line of a poultry processing plant. “Women with higher perceived stress and those with lower waking salivary cortisol levels had a higher intake of a dietary pattern characterized by hyper-palatable foods,” the researcher comments.

According to the professor, the findings may be explained by complex interactions between physiological and psychological mechanisms, which influence dietary behaviors. “Stress induces the activation of Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) neuroendocrine axis, stimulating cortisol secretion”, she states. “In chronic stress, chronic activation of the HPA axis alters glucose metabolism and promotes resistance, leading to changes in several hormones related to appetite, e.g., leptin and ghrelin,” she explains. “Therefore, increased cortisol secretion may lead to a chronically stimulated dietary behavior and to the propensity to eat palatable foods with high calorie content,” she warns.

Moreover, Dr. Canuto explains that the lower waking salivary cortisol levels, associated with a higher consumption of snacks and fast food for a long period (1 year) in the present study, may be explained by the hypothesis of reward system activation. “The excessive intake of highly palatable foods is known to reduce reward thresholds and, thus, exposure to a high fat and high sugar diet may alter the paths involved in the regulation of stress responses, resulting in the compulsive search for highly palatable foods,” she comments. “The research showed that dietary intake is not determined only by individual choices and that stress may be a risk factor for unhealthy food choices by women,” the specialist said.

According to the professor, stress prevention and management are important factors in improving quality of life among women and should be considered in individual care and in public health policies. “It is known that the consumption of this group of foods is related to the development of non-communicable chronic diseases, such as obesity and cardiovascular diseases,” she concludes.

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