Why do we crave junk food when we are stressed (or upset)?

How often do you find yourself drawn to chocolates, chips, pastries and other high & simple carbohydrate ‘comfort foods’ when you have had a stressful day or in the moment of a stressful situation?

Besides the fact that junk foods are convenient, they are also comforting. A lot of food science and lots of money is spent to make junk food pleasurable for us. ‘Junk foods’ have the right chemical make up to make you want more. They stimulate chemical release of the pleasure neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is also associated with addiction. Dopamine is not the only hormone released. When we eat sugar the brain produces opioids, another group of neurotransmitters (including endorphins) largely associated with addiction because they create a morphine like effect.[1]


When we are stressed, the body uses up more nutrients, and food is not digested properly, therefore the energy of the food is not utilised sufficiently. Stress interferes with our hormones. The brain is then signaled that the body need high calorie foods. High calorie foods can fool the brain that it is also nutrient dense, which is not always the case, and because there are not sufficient nutrients in the food, the body still wants more because it is not satisfied. These foods are often high in carbohydrates and simple sugars for quick release of energy.

Stress interferes with our hormones and these are the hormones involved in making us eat more, unnecessarily:


control of food intake leptin-diagram-600x461-1

Leptin is released from fat cells (adipocytes). Leptin is also known as the ‘satiety hormone’. It is responsible for letting our brains know when we are hungry or not, it is also responsible for how our bodies store fat.


Insulin is released by the pancreas when we eat. It helps store all the nutrients, specifically glucose, for when they are needed. If the body is working in homeostasis, it should also signal when we are full.

Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands. It is also known as the ‘stress hormone’. In small bouts it is necessary to help us be alert and for our bodies to function in response to stress, however, chronic release and high levels if cortisol impair parasympathetic functions of the body, including digestion and reparation of the body.

cortisol and weight gain

When we are stressed, our bodies release the hormone cortisol. The function of cortisol is to keep us alive in stressful situations – this requires energy – and the quickest source of energy is in the form of sugar.  Cortisol also blocks the signals of leptin and insulin, so that true hunger and sugar metabolism is impaired, which could lead to insulin and leptin resistance.

One of the functions of leptin is to regulate our hunger. And this keeps us from eating excessively and storing excess fat. Unfortunately, due to stress, our brains do not respond appropriately to leptin – leading to leptin resistance, and in turn, excess adipose tissue.

What is leptin resistance?

“Leptin resistance occurs when your body is unable to hear leptin’s signals. How does this happen? By overexposure to high levels of the hormone, caused by eating too much sugar.”[2]

It is similar to insulin resistance, which is caused by constant high blood sugar levels. In both cases, more of the hormone is produced, because the signals are not being registered.

The consequence of leptin resistance is that we remain hungry and store fat, because the body does not know that there are enough fat cells.



Let’s get on to the neurotransmitters.

The brain gets excited about sugary junk foods – why? During stressful situations we feel uncomfortable, our mood drops and crave a feel good sensation. This is were the reward system in the brain kicks in. We choose foods that release dopamine and / or opioids, these foods are usually based on memories, usually from childhood and things that taste nice.


‘Dr Gibson points out that sweet food can actively alleviate pain by releasing opioids, thus excusing us for giving sweets to a hurt child. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that chocolate causes the brain to release these euphoria-inducing chemicals.'[3]

Dopamine is associated with pleasure as well as addiction. It promotes brain to remember what we did to get something good that we liked (for example: we remember that eating a chocolate made us feel good or we were rewarded with a chocolate for accomplishing something or to make us feel better.) The problem is that dopamine system gets sensitized, meaning that we end up needing more for the same satisfaction.

We cannot overcome the will of this neurotransmitter, however, long term stimulation of the pleasure centres leads to addiction. Pleasurable foods are allowed in moderation, but it is wise to choose the healthiest alternative.


The less junk food you eat, the less you will crave it. 

If you do eat a large amount of junk foods, this may be a bit more tricky. You cannot change overnight, or the chances of running back to junk food will be a lot higher. It is a process of gradually decreasing your intake of junk foods by replacing them with healthier alternatives. Reducing sugar intake and processed foods until they are eliminated completely is one of the best rules to adhere to.

Replacing junk foods with key nutrients can also help:

“Research suggests that IronVitamin B6Folate and Vitamin E are key to maintaining healthy levels of dopamine and dopamine receptors in your brain, so you get the proper reward you deserve from your healthy meals, too. By keeping your brain dopamine-stocked at natural levels, you make it so you don’t need super stimulus like a Cinnabon to get the dopamine flowing…. There’s also some research which suggests that Flavonoids, those lovely antioxidants found in berries and red wine, promote healthy dopamine neurons. So ensuring that you make room in your diet for some blueberries isn’t a bad idea, either.” [4]

Healthy foods for the brain:

  • Walnuts
  • Omega 3
  • Nuts and seeds (preferably soaked – to activate more nutrients)
  • Avocados
  • Blueberries
  • Dark chocolate
  • Raw carrots

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Foods that support the adrenal glands (this especially helps for stress associated with fatigue)

  • Vitamin B12
  • Selenium
  • Magnesium
  • Coconut oil, coconut cream, coconut milk and coconut meat
  • Olives and olive oil
  • Leafy greens: spinach, kale and seaweed

I have mentioned before that stress is the cause of 90% of modern disease. One of the reasons is because it robs our bodies of vitamins and minerals – leaving minimal nutrients to help the rest of the body repair itself and function optimally. Being in chronic fight / flight state, the body does not get a chance to heal itself. This is when dis-ease starts. Symptoms of nutrient depletion could begin as dry brittle skin or acne and manifest into major organ dysfunction (such as cancers, heart disease, etc).

We may not be able to get rid of our stressors, but we can provide our bodies with the means to cope with it…

Healthy tips to avoid ‘stress binging’

  • Keep healthy snacks and meals in the freezer for when you run out of time and energy to cook
  • Include adaptogen herbs in your diet. Adaptogen herbs / roots support the adrenal gland and help support your body to deal with stress. These herbs include ashwaganda, liquorice root, holy basil and ginseng. They can be taken as a tea or in powder form and added to smoothies.
  • Avoid keeping ‘junk food’ in the house
  • Pre-plan and Pre-prepare meals
  • Tissue salts: (minerals that get depleted the most because of stress)
  • Spend time in nature
  • Move, exercise, breath – increase circulation and nutrient flow to the organs and releases dopamine and endorphins which increases pleasure sensation and pain relieving

If you have a high stress lifestyle, (whether its a job or going through a stressful period with family or studying) it is very important that you balance and support yourself with beneficial lifestyle habits and diet. Gentle exercise, proper deep breathing, perhaps balancing therapies, and finding time to do what makes you feel happy and relaxed.

There could also be a cycle with stress and junk food. When we are stressed we crave junk food, that sustains us for a minimal of time and then we feel depleted and we want more…

Healthy, nutrient dense foods keeps our minds and bodies working efficiently for longer, and this helps counteract stress.


  • Reflexology removes toxins from the body, this may in turn help reduce the craving for the food. The body will come to know what is toxic and what is beneficial.
  • Reflexology induces relaxation, which reduces the release of the hormone cortisol, which will in turn balance the release of leptins and insulin in the correct ratios.
  • Reflexology may counteract the negative effects of stress and return your body to parasympathetic, optimal healing and digesting state.
  • Reflexology stimulates the release of neurotransmitters endorphin and dopamine (as well as other neurotransmitters to help balance the body) – which improves the mood.
  • Reflexologists who are trained in nutrition will be able to advise you on foods good for the brain and foods to replace junk foods, as well as how to make the transition.
  • Reflexology is known to be a good complementary therapy for overcoming addictions (big or small).


References (in text)

  1. Compound interest. http://www.compoundchem.com/2014/02/27/the-chemical-structures-of-neurotransmitters/
  2. Dr Mercola, J. Why we eat more than we are supposed to. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/05/26/sugar-affects-leptin-signals.aspx
  3. Smellie, A. Why we crave sugar snacks and not fruit and veg. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1382217/Why-crave-junk-food-fruit-veg.html
  4. Wilcox, C. Understanding our bodies: Dopamine and it’s rewards. http://nutritionwonderland.com/2009/07/understanding-our-bodies-dopamine-rewards/

Other references:



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