Stress and The Food Reward System

Written by: Kevin Cann


Understanding the dynamics of weight loss has always been a hot topic in the literature, and will continue to be until we can fully understand the dynamic components of the disease.  Most people will attempt various diet and/or exercise programs in feeble attempts to shed unwanted pounds.  Nutrition programs and exercise programs are the main focus of people when attempting to lose weight, but there is another area that people may want to look at.

The more I talk with clients and the more I read in the literature, the more I believe stress and our food reward system play major roles in this epidemic.  We all know the daily stressors we encounter like traffic, money problems, and poor sleep.  What people may not realize is that a diet that alters proper energy pathways can also cause stress.  Improper glucose uptake and poor mitochondria function are two common examples of this. Another major cause of this is any type of anemia.

If a person is anemic it becomes nearly impossible to fix the damage stress has caused to the adrenals due to the lack of oxygen.  In the absence of oxygen, glucose becomes our primary fuel through glycolysis.  Glycolysis ends up burning through sugar quickly and this can lead to food cravings and hypoglycemia.  Any type of inflammation can impact the mitochondria and affect ATP production in the cell.  Think about that statement the next time someone tells you, “Everything in moderation.”

When we encounter stress, our HPA axis increases its activity.  Foods high in sugar, fat, and salt elicit a strong response from our opioids.  Opioid release seems to be a strong defense mechanism to an overactive HPA axis (Tanja, 2007).   Meal choice can directly affect mood.  Certain foods can reduce anxiety and irritability and place us in a more positive place.  This is due to the effects food can have on opioids, serotonin, and dopamine.  Chronic exposure to foods eliciting these responses will down regulate our sensitivity to these transmitters and force us to eat more to elicit the same mood altering response.  This can lead to weight gain (Gibson, 2006).  Our reward system is masterfully set up to push us towards things that are beneficial to our survival, such as sex and food.  The question I would like to ask is, what if all those times we reached for highly rewarding foods when our HPA axis was firing caused our circuits to be rewired to actually seek out these foods during times of high stress?

Let us look at a typical drug addiction scenario.  Some trauma causes a person to become depressed.  They try a drug for the first time and feel amazing.  They chronically seek out that “high” feeling and become addicted to the drug.  Replace the drug with highly rewarding foods that elicit the same neurotransmitter response as the drug.  This is, in my opinion, a major underlying cause of the obesity epidemic.

These highly rewarding foods we are choosing end up altering our energy pathways by increasing our insulin response or promoting inflammation.  This causes the cycle to continue to spiral downwards towards metabolic syndrome.  When beginning a weight loss program I encourage everyone to begin a stress management program as well.  When people have struggled on a paleo diet in my practice it is usually due to the drive to eat highly rewarding foods.  This drive may be mitigated with proper stress management.  Losing weight is a hard battle and hopefully as we learn more we will develop better strategies to defeating it.



Gibson, Edward (2006).  Emotional influences on food choice: Sensory, physiological, and psychological pathways.  Physiology and Behavior.

Tanja, Adam (2007).  Stress, eating, and the reward system.  Physiology and Behavior


Kevin is owner of Genetic Potential Nutrition. He is a holistic nutritionist, wellness coach, and strength coach. He works with people fighting illness, to competitive athletes. Check out his site at

Categories: Anti inflammatory diet, Anxiety and Depression, General, Weight Loss


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  1. says

    Great post. I definitely relate to this because I was obese for half of my life and struggled with losing weight. Now that I have lost the weight shedding half of my body fat, I learned that it was the addiction to processed food that made the majority of my efforts to lose weight fail. You definitely get a rush and anxious feeling when you know you are going to eat something “highly rewarding.”. Thus why people are very reluctant to give up sugars, carbs, and processed foods. Even though they know that it’s detrimental to your health they will make excuses to eat such foods and continue to do so just like drugs.

  2. says

    Great point about having to handle stress when you start a weight loss program. I’ve just found that there is MUCH more to getting healthy than eating a different lunch or dinner. It’s much deeper than that.

    Do you have an specific ideas in terms of how to you help your clients deal with stress?

  3. Chris says

    Interesting article, albeit too short. I would have liked to have some information on where to find a stress management program. Googling it might be just as easy, but why bring it up if you aren’t going to go into detail on it.

    I am definitely one of those folks that has stress foods. In my case they are Flips Chocolate Covered Pretzels, obviously not paleo, but damn tasty I’ll admit. When dealing with a stress craving the other day I came very close to having a bag of them, but managed to quell the Committee of Idiots in my head (term courtesy of Jason Mewes) and put the bag down before purchasing them. Taking it day by day also helps.

  4. says

    Stress management is much more individualized then diet. Finding something that works for you takes self-reflection. For me I utilize deep breathing and meditating. I actually just got a guitar and plan to learn how to play it as another option. Getting outside and going for a walk with relaxing music helps some of my clients. I have some clients who like yoga, which utilizes deep breathing and also ties in a social relationship with other members of the group, which also can be stress relieving. Eating properly and exercising are also keys to keeping the stress response low. This is a complicated topic without just one easy answer.

    • PaleoMalin says

      My own journey has taught me that yes it has to be individual. And that even as an individual different types of stress require different responses. Day to day stress can be dealt with through some breath work or simple things like a good walk with the dog or some time resting outdoors. Longer, deeper, stress such as my depression and anxiety takes a heck of a lot more work in order to manage it. My depression took a nasty downturn recently, and actually in doing so forced me to work that bit harder to manage it. In doing so it’s actually helped tackle the emotional eating that I had started to do over the last month without really realising it.

      When it comes to my depression I tend to think of it in turns of a set of scales. Good Vs Bad. Sometimes the weight of the Bad is so heavy that little bits of Good are not enough to balance those scales (or even get close), so I have to do bigger, heavier weight Good stuff. When I realise stuff that goes on the Good side I add it to my list. Then I don’t have to remember it when my brain is telling me that I’m worthless and drowning out the desire to carry on. 18 months that have includes a year of anti-depressants, a kick up the backside from a psych, and a year of therapy have helped me realise this. Despite the pile of stuff on the Bad side for me at the moment I’m still pretty happy, still off the meds, and more chilled out and in control than I was.

  5. Cindy says

    Good information. Every time I read an article about neurotransmitters I wonder why more information is not given on how to treat it with amino acids. There is a wealth of information out there with the work of Kenneth Blum, Dr. Charles Gant, and Julia Ross, to name a few. When we talk about addictions to food, drugs, gambling, hoarding, or just about any addictive behavior, it can be treated naturally and without “white knuckling” it.

  6. says

    Very interesting post, Kevin. I always appreciate how you can pack so much great info into such a short, readable post. I’ve been thinking about better ways to deal with stress, but your post really completes the picture. I focused on Eastern modalities and then on more practical ideas, but I hadn’t thought about how big of a role food choices play in stress management. I really appreciate how you highlighted the cyclic perpetuation of increased stress caused by bad food choices, which then lead to abusing these high reward foods. Thank you!

  7. Gabriele says

    Hi Kevin,

    what about a Paleo-Zone diet?

    I do apply the Zone principles (40-30-30) to the Paleo diet, in a way that I eat 40% carbs during each meal (13 blocks in 6 meals per day), using only veggies and fruits with low glycemyc index. Fats and Proteins all strict Paleo.

    Is this a good solution to reduce stress?


  8. Lorna says

    Very good article. I can emphasize with the depression and stress comments and the food addictions that they can cause. Before I went Paleo(about 8 months ago), I felt that I had no control over food at all. I almost had a buzzing in my brain that allowed no other thoughts than what ever food I craved. After I went Paleo, this buzzing is quieter but I seem to have gone to the other side where I am seldom hungry. I am not physcally hungry all day but wake up at 3:00 in the morning with hunger. You would think that I should easily be able to lose extra weight but now, I have to make sure that my calorie amount does not go too low (under 1000). I am finding that my excess fat is very slow to leave. I am building more muscle and my body is slowly toning but weight lose is still very frustratingly slow. I have actually gained 3 lbs on the scale even though my cloths fit loser. Why do I not have hunger signals in the day?

  9. Brian says

    This is only my personal experience, but going along with the anthropological paleo theme, I think that just making sure you “get outside” to do anything is important for stress reduction. I know Im stating the obvious, but it is easy to fall into the following trap day after day. On a typical day, I get up, go from my house to garage, get in the car, drive to work, walk a few steps and get into the office. Reverse is repeated at the end of the day. I find that even on the not so stressful days, I find myself feeling a little stressed and it is not just the lack of exercise. I believe it is a form of sensory deprivation (i am using my brain, but there is little environmental sensory input). Conversely when outside, multiple sensory systems are almost immediately engaged (think the sun, wind, heat/cold, natural aromas, etc). Much better if in a natural environment

  10. says

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