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Stress Eating: It's More Complicated Than It Looks

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Nearly half the American population admits to managing stress with food. (See, also: Thanksgiving.)

Eating as a stress-reducer, though, has been linked to unintended weight gain and largely condemned. But, oddly, people who lose their appetite when stressed are seen as fortunate, and their behavior is often dismissed as benign.

New research out of Germany suggests that neither situation is so clear-cut. A study just published in Psychological Science suggests that maybe stress-eating isn’t so awful after all, particularly when it comes along with a positive social interaction.

Researchers from the University of Konstanz, Germany, recruited self-identified stress-eaters (called “stress hyperphagics”) as well as people who skip meals when stressed (“stress hypophagics”). The study subjects were randomly given either positive social feedback (“social inclusion”), or experienced rejection (“social exclusion”). They were then presented with different flavors of ice cream under the guise of a “taste test,” so the subjects weren’t aware that the researchers were measuring the amount of ice cream they consumed.

icecream

As expected, stress-eaters consumed significantly more ice cream than stress-skippers after experiencing social stress. But after a positive social experience, the behavior patterns were reversed. Not only did stress-eaters consume significantly less ice cream, but stress-skippers ate a lot more. Take these two situations together, and the average calorie consumption of stress-eaters and stress-skippers was about the same.

It seems, according the the study, that rather than labeling people as “stress-eaters” and “stress-skippers,” people who alter their food intake according to their emotional state could more appropriately be called “mood-dependent eaters.”

So what does it all mean? “According to our findings, neither munchers nor skippers are considered at risk to gain weight by default,” says lead researcher Dr. Gudrun Sproesser.

She says that the results “challenge a view in which stress eating is seen as maladaptive behavior, simplistically leading or contributing to the obesity epidemic,” and “suggest a need for a dynamic view of food intake across multiple situations, positive and negative.”

This study looked at social stress in particular because, as Sproesser puts it, “human beings can be considered as social animals. Everyday life is full of positive and negative social interactions” that greatly influence our behavior.

Surprisingly, there was no effect of gender or BMI on the results. Overweight subjects exhibited the same patterns of eating as their healthier counterparts, and Sproesser says the only difference between the male and female subjects was that “men consumed significantly more ice cream in the taste test.”

Based on the results, stress-eaters probably shouldn’t be told that their eating behavior is harmful per se. In fact, Sproesser says that “skipping food when being stressed may cause additional stress in munchers.”

The bottom line: if you find yourself reaching for food when you’re stressed, you can do it, but maybe go find a friend to talk to as well.

This program aired on November 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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