Having your cake and eating it too: a habit of comfort food may link chronic social stress exposure and acute stress-induced cortisol hyporesponsiveness

Physiol Behav. 2013 Apr 10:114-115:32-7. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2013.02.018. Epub 2013 Mar 15.


Stress has been tied to changes in eating behavior and food choice. Previous studies in rodents have shown that chronic stress increases palatable food intake which, in turn, increases visceral fat and inhibits acute stress-induced hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity. The effect of chronic stress on eating behavior in humans is less understood, but it may be linked to HPA responsivity. The purpose of this study was to investigate the influence of chronic social stress and acute stress reactivity on food choice and food intake. Forty-one women (BMI=25.9±5.1 kg/m(2), age range=41 to 52 years) were subjected to the Trier Social Stress Test or a control task (nature movie) to examine HPA responses to an acute laboratory stressor and then invited to eat from a buffet containing low- and high-calorie snacks. Women were also categorized as high chronic stress or low chronic stress based on Wheaton Chronic Stress Inventory scores. Women reporting higher chronic stress and exhibiting low cortisol reactivity to the acute stress task consumed significantly more calories from chocolate cake on both stress and control visits. Chronic stress in the low cortisol reactor group was also positively related to total fat mass, body fat percentage, and stress-induced negative mood. Further, women reporting high chronic stress consumed significantly less vegetables, but only in those aged 45 years and older. Chronic stress in women within the higher age category was positively related to total calories consumed at the buffet, stress-induced negative mood and food craving. Our results suggest an increased risk for stress eating in persons with a specific chronic stress signature and imply that a habit of comfort food may link chronic social stress and acute stress-induced cortisol hyporesponsiveness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Absorptiometry, Photon
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Body Composition
  • Body Mass Index
  • Body Weight / physiology
  • Eating / physiology*
  • Female
  • Food
  • Food Preferences / psychology*
  • Habits*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological* / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological* / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological* / psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Time Factors


  • Hydrocortisone