Why We Eat When The Heat Is On

(Julia Ewan - Twp)
By Sally Squires
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

When life gets tough, the stressed often get hungry.

"I'm a total stress eater," notes a Lean Plate Club member who faces frequent deadlines in her job at a major magazine publishing house in New York. "It's an ongoing battle for me. . . . Food not only placates, but it also allows me to procrastinate."

For others, working long hours is the trigger. "I'm a junior in college and often find myself craving salty snacks when I'm stressed and working late into the night," a Lean Plate Club member in Annapolis noted in a recent e-mail.

Exactly how many people experience stress-related eating isn't known, but as the obesity epidemic worsens, there's growing scientific interest in the topic -- and how to explain it.

"Fight-or-flight is the normal response to stress," notes Tatjana van Strien, professor of psychology at Radboud University in the Netherlands. "All the blood goes to the muscles so that you're ready for action and not for eating. . . . So stress eating is highly unadaptive and highly strange." What's more, when people are under great stress, such as the death of a family member, they tend not to eat.

It's easy to blame the urge to raid the refrigerator on job pressures, hectic schedules, family crises and personal conflicts. "There's definitely an association between stress and mood and increased eating," notes Michael Lowe, professor of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia and author of several recent studies of stress-induced eating. "Loneliness, boredom, anxiety, depression -- all of those fit in, too."

Lowe's work suggests that there may be more at play. The latest findings, published in the journal Appetite, show that people who are engaged in enjoyable activities that require mental focus overeat just as much as those who are stressed by onerous circumstances.

"That suggests that there's something more than negative emotions going on," Lowe says.

And increased appetite cannot be explained by the additional caloric needs of the brain.

"If you do cognitively demanding work, you see a small increase in brain energy, but not a lot," Lowe says. "So why would mental work or stress make anyone want to eat more? It's not like you've gone out and run five miles."

What also intrigues scientists is that this superfluous eating doesn't affect everyone equally. Those most susceptible appear to be so-called "restrained eaters" -- people who watch their weight, whether successful at it or not. For example, Lowe's research suggests that they are more likely to overeat in all circumstances than those who don't have weight concerns.

Add to that the 24-hour availability of food and you have what Lowe calls "a new kind of hunger."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company