Why We Eat When The Heat Is On

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."

"It's reflected in the paradox," he says, "that both the absence and the presence of food are capable of making us hungry, but apparently in very fundamentally different ways."

So while it makes sense physiologically for people to be hungry four to six hours after eating a meal, it's harder to explain why a plate of chocolate chip cookies can be so appealing shortly after a meal. "You're not in a state of caloric deprivation," Lowe notes. "But you experience the desire to have them."

It's that kind of hunger that scientists hope to better understand. Until they do, people who are most susceptible to so-called stress or emotional eating will have to look for ways to minimize the caloric damage, Lowe says.

Some Lean Plate Club members are already doing that.

"About 9 a.m., after I'm at work for a little more than an hour, the cravings prey on my brain," notes Jennie Geisler of Erie, Pa. "I try to suck on hard candy, gulp down decaf coffee, drink water, eat South Beach protein bars and Quaker oatmeal bars. That all helps."

So does pacing how quickly she eats. "Pick it up," Geisler notes in an e-mail. "Take a bite. Put it down. Work for five minutes. Start over. If I don't do that, I'll eat 10 cookies without thinking about it. Pretzels and bagels sometimes slow me down."

Geisler also uses physical activity to help thwart stress eating. "Sometimes I just have to get up and walk around the building until I can get my brain back in gear," she says.

That's a strategy that also helps Lean Plate Club member Jody Nyers, a benefits analyst for the Department of Agriculture.

Nyers gets up at 3:45 a.m. and begins her commute from Southern Maryland at 4:45 a.m. She doesn't get home until 12 hours later.

The long work days mean that she often has to fight the urge for midafternoon sweet snacks. "If I'm tempted, I walk the half-mile around the building," says Nyers, who also teaches spinning classes at her gym and has recently started taking yoga to help reduce stress.

Even so, "it's a battle," she says. "We live in a world where everything comes in huge portions and there are so many foods to choose from. . . . I work out a lot because I love to eat."

Nyers begins the day with a healthy breakfast. She follows that with a healthy lunch. And she gets to the gym five to six times a week. "But 2 p.m. is my killer time," she says. "If I'm stressed and trying to get something done, I could go down to the cafeteria and get more than I should have to eat."

Jerry Franz, a Lean Plate Club member who recently began working at home, says the change in job venues has led to a few revelations about stress eating. "Simple steps really can work," he notes in an e-mail. "I have stocked my kitchen with healthier options that I enjoy, so when that stress urge to eat comes and I run downstairs from my office to the kitchen, I only have the healthier options such as Gala apples, oranges or yogurt from which to choose."

When he worked in downtown Washington, Franz says, it was easy to go to the company kitchen and find "cakes, cookies and doughnuts or to run to the local deli or CVS for a salty snacks or candy. . . . Of course, I am far from perfect, so I do keep a bag of small-sized Reese's Peanut Butter Cups for when nothing but chocolate will do." ยท

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