This post is going to cover some of the research on how stress affects eating patterns and the types of food of which people love to stress eat. I am not a dietician or an expert in this field so please do not take my word for it – read the research yourself if it interests you, or ask questions if you want to know more!
Mentally raise your hand if you have ever eaten differently because of stress. Lots of us have done it! Stress is experienced when a situation is perceived as being outside of your usual coping mechanisms – something which overwhelms our mind and body in a way that everyday situations do not (Fryer et al., 1997). Stress has been linked to both increased and decreased dietary intake, or no change whatsoever – this makes individual differences, coping mechanisms and the type of stress-inducing situation really important in affecting food choices (Roohafza et al., 2013). With this in mind, a couple of interesting things have been discovered with regards to emotions and food. For the purposes of this post, eating disorders will not be covered in any depth.
Stress and food consumption
When we experience a moment of stress, there are a variety of ways our reaction to this stress can alter our diet. For example, the composition of that food (e.g. high in carbohydrates/fat) may suddenly make that massive bowl of pasta or tub of ice-cream seem more desirable, so that we are more likely to eat it. A loss of inhibition to “unhealthy” foods can also occur, which may further explain stress-eating behaviour (Mikolajczyk et al., 2009). This is pretty common – a study by Michaud et al. (1990) looked at the effect of high school examinations as a stressor affecting diet in over 200 teenage students, finding that both total energy intake and amount of fat in the diet increased for students on the day of their examination.
Social and political factors, such as perception of body image, self-esteem (Fryer et al., 1997) or prior eating habits (Mikolajczyk et al., 2009) also help determine what we munch when we are feeling stressed. And the focus is on the feeling of being stressed, and the negative emotions which ensue: it is not the stress itself which triggers changing dietary consumption, but the response to this stress. In theory, negative emotions should make the body feel fuller due to the release of appetite-inhibiting hormones, delay in gastric emptying (emptying of the stomach) and an increased feeling of satiety (Evers et al., 2010; Roohafza et al., 2013). So why is emotional overeating still such a common occurrence?
Many theories have been presented on why people overeat. One theory is that when an individual experiences stress, they subconsciously try to escape the negative self-awareness which comes from trying to understand their own emotions, and instead distract themselves with an external stimulus (food) (Evers et al., 2010). Other theories are that the pleasure of consuming the food itself can override the negative emotion associated with the stressful situation, or that the individual subconsciously attributes their negative feelings to a different cause (food), so that they don’t have to deal with the situation actually causing them (Evers et al., 2010). These theories again highlight the fact that overeating is not always about the food but about the coping mechanism.
A study by Oliver et al. (2009) further looked at coping mechanisms and eating, and in particular the habit of emotional eating. They first divided 64 healthy men and women into two groups, where one was exposed to a stressful situation (in this case, the threat of performing a speech in front of others), and the other was a control group, who had to read a passage of writing. The amount of food each group consumed prior to the stressful/control situation was recorded alongside heart rate, blood pressure and mood, and the results were quite surprising: Stress did not increase the overall intake of all food types consumed by the stressed group, but emotional eaters did increase their intake of sweeter, high fat, calorie-dense foods. Other literature supports this finding: for example in a survey of people from Germany, Poland and Bulgaria perceived stress and an associated consumption of calorie-dense foods was found to be much greater in females, of which a higher proportion are emotional eaters compared to males (Oliver et al., 2000;Mikolajczyk et al., 2009). These findings highlight again the importance of individual differences relating to emotional capability – self-esteem, anxiety, social support and dietary restraint all play a part in determining response to stress through overeating (Evers et al., 2010 and references therein).
One of the most popular choices when it comes to overeating and snacking is carbohydrates. This macronutrient provides us with loads of energy to go about our daily business, but its consumption has also been linked to mood. For example, eating carbs is believed to relieve low mood, although it could be that the low mood is linked to the carb consumption in the first place – this topic is not yet completely understood (Mikolajczyk et al., 2009). Carbohydrates can stimulate the release of endorphins, and can even have a sedative effect (Benton, 2002). For example in a study of the Quolla Indians of Peru, known for their high murder rate and family feuds, aggression and development of low blood-glucose levels were linked (Benton, 2002). This might further suggest the powerful effect of carbohydrate consumption on mood, though of course correlation does not always equal causation in research (Benton, 2002).
Perhaps this post is poorly titled – stress itself may not actually cause you to change your diet, but your mental and physical response to that stress definitely could. This is an important distinction – although at first it is a bit of a bummer to acknowledge that an external stressor is not forcing you to eat more/less, it is helpful to know that you can control your own emotional responses and therefore your relationship with food. In their study on emotion regulating strategies and emotional eating, Evers et al. (2010) found that participants who were instructed to express rather than repress their emotions ate a lower amount of comfort foods than those who were instructed to repress them. Different emotional regulation strategies shape differences in eating behaviour – so if you really struggle with over/under eating when you are overwhelmed, perhaps it might benefit you to find alternative coping mechanisms which allow you to better manage your emotions before a stressful situation knocks them all out of whack again (verywellmind.com).
Most importantly: don’t be so hard on yourself for your eating habits, or anything else for that matter. Everybody deals with things differently, and that is OK. I hope this post has been interesting, and I will see you again soon.
Mikolajczyk, R.T., El Ansari, W. & Maxwell, A.E. (2009) Food consumption frequency and perceived stress and depressive symptoms among students in three European countries. Nutrition journal, 8(1), p.31
Benton, D. (2002) Carbohydrate ingestion, blood glucose and mood. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 26(3), pp.293-308
Michaud, C.L., Kahn, J.P., Musse, N., Burlet, C., Nicolas, J.P. & Mejean, L. (1990) Relationships between a critical life event and eating behaviour in high‐school students. Stress Medicine, 6(1), pp.57-64
Fryer, S., Waller, G. & Kroese, B.S. (1997) Stress, coping, and disturbed eating attitudes in teenage girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 22(4), pp.427-436
Roohafza, H., Sarrafzadegan, N., Sadeghi, M., Rafieian-Kopaei, M., Sajjadi, F. & Khosravi-Boroujeni, H. (2013) The association between stress levels and food consumption among Iranian population. Archives of Iranian medicine, 16(3), pp.145-148
Oliver, G., Wardle, J. & Gibson, E.L. (2000) Stress and food choice: a laboratory study. Psychosomatic medicine, 62(6), pp.853-865
Evers, C., Marijn Stok, F. & de Ridder, D.T. (2010) Feeding your feelings: Emotion regulation strategies and emotional eating. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(6), pp.792-804
Verywellmind.com (2020) 5 emotion-focused coping techniques for stress relief. [online] Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/emotion-focused-coping-for-stress-relief-3145107 (Accessed: 14/05/2020)