Be Well: Is Stress Eating A Real Thing?

young woman eating potatoe chips against a white background

In today’s world, food is not just used to sustain and nourish the body. We use food to celebrate special occasions, like eating cake on our birthday or going to a fancy restaurant on our anniversary.  It’s also a reward, like buying the little league team ice cream after a winning game. But what about using food to relieve stress? Recent scientific studies show that stress eating may actually be a myth.

We’ve all heard someone say (or possibly said ourselves), “My boss made me so mad yesterday, I ate a box of cookies when I got home,” or “I broke up with my boyfriend, so I ate a whole container of ice cream.”

As it turns out, we may be using stress as an excuse to eat poorly, when in fact, eating does not relieve our stress at all.

A research study done at the University of Minnesota took 100 subjects and asked them to choose three foods that would make them feel better if they were in a bad mood. They were then shown various scenes from sad movies, followed by a mood questionnaire. All 100 subjects reported feeling sad and upset.

They were then divided into three groups. One group was given comfort food, one group was given food they said they liked but wouldn’t classify as comfort food and one group was given no food. After three minutes, they took another mood questionnaire. All three groups reported feeling better. However, there was no measurable difference between any of the groups. The group who ate comfort food did not feel any better than the group that had no food. Also, all three groups felt better within the same amount of time (three minutes) whether they had comfort food, non-comfort food or no food at all.

A 2016 study, published in the journal Biological Psychology, shows that people actually eat less when they are stressed. Fifty-nine participants were asked to monitor their emotional state, stress level and food for a period of 10 days, recording the information five times a day. For each food entry, they were asked if they were eating because they were hungry or if they were eating for another reason. Researchers discovered at the end of the 10-day period that when the participants reported a higher stress level, they were less likely to report eating for any reason other than physical hunger. In fact, as opposed to eating when they felt stressed, the complete opposite was found to be true. Positive, happy emotions made people more likely to eat for reasons other than hunger – for example, cake at a birthday party or a co-worker bringing doughnuts for the office.

These studies seem to show that food is not the answer to improving or boosting our moods. We may just be looking for a way to justify eating something unhealthful. So, if you want a cookie, eat it. However, if you are looking to relieve stress, eating may not be the answer. Try to find better stress-relievers, like exercise, talking with a friend or writing in a journal.

Be Well Tips
•  People are more likely to eat for positive reasons.
•  Eating does not improve mood.
•  Manage stress in another way.
•  Stress eating may just be an excuse to eat poorly.