Comfort Eating and Cortisol Reactivity

Ayesha Azeem ‘23

Figure 1. Eating behaviors are often influenced by stress. While some decrease food intake, others turn to comfort eating as a coping method. 

“Comfort-eating,” or increased food intake, is one of the most common responses to stressful situations. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone that regulates metabolism and the immune response to stressful situations. Cortisol reactivity under stress can predict stress-related eating behavior and how it affects the body mass index (BMI). Based on one’s cortisol reactivity to a stressor, a person may be classified as a high or low cortisol reactor, which may determine how they react to stressful situations in terms of food intake. A German study led by medical psychologist Benedict Herhaus and team investigated the effect of high and low cortisol reactivity and stress-induced eating habits in people with obesity.

To conduct the study, 36 men and women with obesity and 36 relatively healthy men and women were recruited, with no significant differences between the two groups for age and gender. Participants were excluded if they reported a medical illness, mental disorder, medication and/or substance use and recent stressful life events.

Two laboratory sessions were held, stress and resting, over a course of 7 days. Participants were asked to refrain from eating, smoking and drinking before the sessions, since these activities can affect cortisol levels and experiment results. Before the session, two saliva samples were collected and two pieces of food were consumed. The participants then went through either the resting or the stress condition, where they either read magazines or took a stress test. After the period, participants reported on the experience as well as their appetite. 

The study determined that the obese high cortisol reactors displayed a higher food intake in comparison to the obese low cortisol reactors. Additionally, the obese high cortisol reactors displayed lower emotion coping strategy of cognitive reappraisal — in other words, they did not display proactive behavior when coping with stress. The obese low cortisol reactors, however, were more effective in cognitive reappraisal. This study also confirmed that there is an association between higher cortisol reactivity and increased food intake in people with healthy weight; however, cause and effect has not been determined. A possible explanation for the results of the study is that obese individuals may be more vulnerable to developing irregular eating behaviors in response to stress. This can be due to the increased stressors in the lives of people with obesity, including struggles with losing weight in dieting, which may lead to comfort eating as a coping method. 



  1. B. Herhaus, et al., High/low cortisol reactivity and food intake in people with obesity and healthy weight. Translational Psychiatry, (2020). doi: 10.1038/s41398-020-0729-6.

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