eatingThere is much truth behind the phrase "stress eating." Stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary "comfort foods" push people toward overeating. Researchers have linked weight gain to stress, and according to an American Psychological Association survey, about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 on a scale of 10.

If stress persists, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn't go away — or if a person's stress response gets stuck in the "on" position — cortisol

Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that inhibits activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress and related emotions. These foods really are "comfort" foods in that they seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people's stress-induced craving for those foods, according to the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Stress also seems to affect food preferences. Numerous studies — granted, many of them in animals — have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both.

Of course, overeating isn't the only stress-related behavior that can add pounds. Stressed people also lose sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all which can contribute to weight gain.

When stress affects someone's appetite and waistline, the individual can forestall further weight gain by ridding the refrigerator and cupboards of high-fat, sugary foods.

Here are some other suggestions for countering stress:

Meditation. Countless studies show that meditation reduces stress, although much of the research has focused on high blood pressure and heart disease. Meditation may also help people become more mindful of food choices.

Exercise. Intense exercise increases cortisol levels temporarily, but low-intensity exercise seems to reduce them. University of California researchers reported that exercise — and this was vigorous exercise — may blunt some of the negative effects of stress.

Social support. Friends, family, and other sources of social support seem to have a buffering effect on the stress that people experience. For example, research suggests that people working in stressful situations, like hospital emergency departments, have better mental health if they have adequate social support. But even people who live and work in situations where the stakes aren't as high need help from time to time.