Vitality

Stress Eating vs. Stress Fasting: Dangers And Effects On The Mind And Body

When some people are stressed at work, they reach for a cookie... and then another, and then another. Other people stop eating all together. Neither coping strategy, known as stress eating and stress fasting, is healthy, but which is worse?

Regular overeating is unhealthy for both the body and the mind. Those who feel their overeating habits in times of stress are an addiction may not be far off-base. The release of the chemical dopamine in our brains connects eating with pleasure and satisfaction, and that trains overeaters to keep going back for more. Researchers have even found the levels of dopamine receptors in the brain to be similar in obese people and people who are addicted to cocaine or alcohol, according to Scientific American. Addicts either start out with a low number of receptors, or reach that level over a period of abuse, but in either case, the person is forced to seek more and more stimulation in order to get their dopamine fix. In studies of rodents, mice took two days off cocaine to return to normal dopamine levels, but obese rats took two weeks when their diets changed, Scientific American reported.

Overeating can also wreak havoc on the body’s insulin levels. The pancreas releases insulin into the blood after a meal to combat higher glucose levels but people who overeat can develop insulin resistance, which the National Institutes of Health describes as muscle, fat and liver cells not responding properly to insulin or absorbing glucose from the bloodstream. The pancreas may produce more insulin to keep up with demand, but sometimes it cannot keep pace, and that can lead to diabetes or other health disorders.

The Mayo Clinic also lists obesity, joint problems, heart disease, diabetes and sleep-related breathing disorders as possible physical side effects of overeating. And the National Institutes of Health additionally link belly fat to high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

These all sound like dangerous maladies, but depriving the body of food has its own harmful side effects.

Apart from the possibility of creating an unhealthy relationship with food, particularly for those who have previously battled an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, going without food raises the body’s cortisol levels, doctor and health writer Sara Gottfried told the Huffington Post. That hormone in the short-term will make the body release fat as energy, but in the longer term will break down muscle and actual fat stores. Increased cortisol can also raise blood sugar and increase insulin resistance — a side effect that ironically is also linked to overeating.

That’s in addition to the effects of the food binge that may follow a day of self-imposed starvation.

The news is not all bad, however. A study published in Nutrition Journal on alternate-day fasting as a form of diet for obese subjects noted that side effects were minimal, with the most significant ones being bad breath, dizziness and weakness and trouble staying asleep. It also said the alternate-day fasting did not cause emotional harm — rather, “body image perception improved.” But the study noted that more thorough research could be done: “Assessing the impact of ADF on cold intolerance, hair loss, headaches, muscle cramps, and difficulty concentrating, would provide a more comprehensive portrayal of the diet’s safety profile.”

Whatever the positives may be, given the potential risks of both overeating and going hungry, it is probably safer just to eat healthy food at a consistent pace throughout your stressful day.

Source: Hoddy KK., Kroeger CM., Trepanowski JF., Barnosky AR., Bhutani Si, Varady KA. “Safety of alternate day fasting and effect on disordered eating behaviors.” Nutrition Journal. 2015.

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