Stress reinforces eating habits, whether good or bad
The role of emotional triggers, like stress, can't be overstated when it comes to eating disorders.
And while many people believe that emotional eating is equated with the consumption of junk food, new research suggests that stress makes us seek the foods we eat out of habit – whether they're healthy or unhealthy.
Stress and brain chemistry
Eating to relieve stress may temporarily induce pleasurable feelings as chemicals are released which help bring about an overall sense of well-being and comfort. Yet we don't always turn to high-calorie, salty, fatty or sugary foods, the research found. We turn to the foods we're most used to eating during times of stress, said study author David Neal, PhD, from the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Habits don’t change in a high-pressure situation,” Neal said. “People default to what their habits are under stress, whether healthy or not.”
For his research, Neal and his team surveyed 59 MBA students about which midterm snacks they would like to eat. The list of foods included both healthy (fruit, yogurt or whole wheat crackers) and unhealthy options (chips, sugar cookies or popcorn). The students were also asked how often they ate the snack during the week. Results showed that, during times of stress – like finals week – the students were more likely to eat their snack of choice.
“Habits are 45 percent of daily life,” Neal said. “They cause us to disregard rational or motivational drivers and instead be cued by context, automated actions, time pressure and low self-control.”
The results might indicate why turning to new, healthier foods when in times of emotional crisis – or even just in daily life – might be difficult for some people. Consumers are already trained to purchase certain products out of sheer habit, Neal said.
“Think about the cognitive efficiency of that effort,” Neale Martin, Ph.D., told Psych Central “Think of how many things you’re not looking at; how many things you are ignoring.”
For those looking to avoid unhealthy binges during difficult times, the key may be to start by changing what foods you turn to during stressful circumstances in order to create new and healthier habits.