The Effects of Stress on Eating Habits
by Azeen Athar
Mandy lies in bed thinking about all the things she has to do: an organic chemistry II lab report, a history essay and an application for a competitive internship position, all due by midnight. Tomorrow is an entirely different story: early morning volunteering, attending club meetings and studying for both a quiz and an exam, all while keeping up with her other challenging science courses. It seems as though each day brings on another endless list of things to do.
To make matters worse, Mandy is on a restrictive diet, and every time she thinks about all she has to do, she just wants to eat a chocolate bar. In fact, she craves and indulges in the foods she tells herself not to have: cookies, ice cream and donuts. “One chocolate bar won’t hurt,” she thinks. That one piece of delicious cocoa suddenly turns into a second, then a third and finally a fourth – a la mode style, topped with a crushed Oreo cookie. It is as though the stress from school somehow makes her crave these snacks and subsequently binge, which in turn, further increases her stress levels.
Not only does stress have numerous direct, biological effects on an individual, such as increased blood pressure, headaches and exacerbation of preexisting health conditions, it also indirectly affects one’s eating habits, impacting the overall health and well-being of an individual. Studies have shown that stress may affect the appetite of an individual, inducing either eating more or less than usual, and may also influence one’s food choices, causing an individual to go after high-fat, calorically dense “snack” foods or sweets rather than more nutrient dense, “meal type” foods such as meat and vegetables. As a result, those who frequently experience stress may increase their daily caloric intake tremendously by incessantly snacking on these junk foods, consequently leading to weight gain and other long-term health issues like heart disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis. Stress comes in numerous forms and affects virtually everyone – adults in the workplace, college students and those suffering financially or medically, to name a few. The dominance of stress in our society and our inability to cope with it may have deleterious consequences on our nation’s health and the obesity epidemic in America.
Different levels of stress may induce a variety of responses in different kinds of people. For instance, high stressors such as chronic illness or death in the family may commonly decrease appetite levels in individuals, a phenomenon known as hypophagia, while more mild stressors may increase appetite, which is termed hyperphagia. However, this pattern depends on a variety of factors based on the individual, including their level of dietary restraint and gender. According to “Stress and Food Choice: A Laboratory Study” in Psychosomatic Medicine, those who already have high levels of dietary restraint consistently showcase greater eating tendencies under stress, whereas intake is the same or lower in unrestrained eater.
In a study on food selection changes in response to stress, which was conducted on 169 undergraduate students (128 females, 41 males) from Montclair State University, 46 percent of women and 17 percent of men reported hyperphagia, when stressed. Women made up the majority of restrained eaters among stress-induced overeaters when compared to men, suggesting that women who have preexisting restrictive tendencies when it comes to eating tend to experience hyperphagia when stressed, which could explain restrictive-dieter Mandy’s stress-induced, chocolate binge eating episode. Furthermore, like Mandy, 73 percent of these stress-induced overeaters indicated that they eat calorically dense foods high in fat (most common food being chocolate) when stressed out than they would otherwise normally avoid due to weight concerns or health reasons. Of this group of restrictive eaters, 53 percent said they ate these foods because it made them feel more relaxed, and 22 percent of the women said it was simply because the food tasted good.
This finding suggests that the unpleasant apprehension induced by stressors in an individual may drive them to seek instant gratification in order to reduce negative feelings and anxiety associated with stress, which is accomplished by eating foods that are satisfying, or highly palatable to one’s taste buds. While eating these comfort foods does not decrease stress itself, it may drive the individual to overeat in order to feel at least some happiness, rather than just stress alone. Furthermore, subjects reported that eating these comfort foods distracted them from their stressors, or unpleasant tasks, which provided them momentary relief. Perhaps by continuing to eat satisfying foods without halt, Mandy and other stressed overeaters prolong the amount of time they are distracted from their stressor and subsequently feel happiness and comfort for longer periods of time.
While stress provokes overeating for Mandy and other restrictive eaters, it may also cause a dramatic shift in food choice. From the Montclair study, 34 females were randomly separated into two groups. Each group was presented with a list of anagrams to solve. The experimental, “stress-induced” group was given a list of 10 unsolvable, five-letter anagrams, while the control group was given 10 doable, five-letter anagrams, along with a word bank. As a reward for participating, four different bowls containing sweet and savory snack food options like M&Ms, potato chips, peanuts, and grapes were placed in the room. Each subject was allowed to snack freely on any of the foods during the course of the experiment. All subjects were then left alone and given ten minutes to solve the set of anagrams.
After the time was up, subjects rated their stress levels during the experiment. Results from the study indicated that the stress group ate more M&Ms than the unstressed group, which ate more grapes. This finding suggests that individuals under higher levels of stress tend to choose unhealthy food alternatives, which in this case, were the sweet, calorically dense M&Ms, over the healthier option of grapes.
In a different laboratory study conducted by Dr. Edward Leigh Gibson and team from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University College London in the United Kingdom, subjects that were exposed to an effective stressor had increased consumption of sweet, fatty foods over low-fat bland or salty foods, with cake and chocolate biscuits being the key, preferred snacks by stressed eaters, rather than wholesome meals. Moreover, vulnerable emotional eaters ate double the weight of these sweet, high fat desserts as opposed to the non-emotional eaters of the same, “stress-induced” group. However, pre-existing emotional-eating tendencies may not be the only cause of this dietary shift. In fact, the preference towards energy-dense snacks over meal consumption may be a result of a physiological effect of stress on the body: the suppression of gut activity by sympathetic (adrenaline-promoted) arousal, with the snacks being easier to digest than meals.
As stress has been found to increase the consumption of high-fat, unhealthy foods in individuals, those who are in a high stress environment may often habitually binge on these calorically dense, fattening foods, which can eventually lead to weight gain and obesity. In a college setting, there are innumerable stressors, such as keeping up with challenging courses, managing finances and dealing with homesickness.
However, many steps can be taken to alleviate stress and minimize stress-binge cycles. Yoga, for instance, has been a proven stress-reducer. Complete concentration on slow and steady breathing suppresses stressful thoughts and relieves tension from the body, allowing one to enter a relaxed state of increased self-awareness. Others find it useful to create a stress journal, in which they can record the sources of their stressors, how they responded to them and whether or not it made them feel better.
Over time, one can establish appropriate and efficient coping mechanisms in response to stressful situations, and perhaps find ways to avoid certain stress triggers altogether.