How Stress and Eating Are Connected

April 17, 2013 Katharina Lochner
image resisting temptation

Stressed out? Have some chocolate.

“Many of us will recall occasions when we skipped breakfast, grabbed a croissant or a muffin mid-morning, ate lunch staring at our computer screens or had fast food for dinner. If we’re a 21st century office worker, it’s likely we’re all familiar with these experiences.” These are the introductory words for a survey that investigated the connections between stress at work and unhealthy eating habits.

The full report by food psychologist Dr. Barbara Stewart-Knox of The Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health (NICHE) at the University of Ulster and Herbalife is available online here.

4,980 office workers between 18 and 75 years of age in the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy participated in the survey and reported their job roles, stress levels and eating habits. The good news was that eating habits amongst European office workers were healthier than for example those of American employees and overall okay. However, the survey also demonstrated that stress at work is related to high-energy food intake and unhealthy eating behaviours. Under stressful conditions, particularly women tend to overeat, and younger employees in middle- to senior-ranking jobs seem to be more prone to unhealthy snacking behaviours than older ones.

Why is this so? One explanation is that chronic stress is associated with reduced levels of insulin and leptin, the hormones responsible for storing energy. When less energy is stored, this means that also less energy is available when needed. Furthermore, lower levels of these two hormones seem lead to increased appetite, but decreased fat metabolism. Thus, when under chronic stress, we have less energy available and need to take more in, and we experience more appetite, while our fat metabolism does not work quite as well.

Interestingly, workers were found to eat healthier snacks when at work than when at home. One explanation provided in the report was that people want to present themselves as being on a good and healthy diet. But the other explanation is even more interesting: When returning from a stressful day at work, many people reward themselves by sweets or a glass of wine. Our internal reward system in the brain, ruled by the neurotransmitter dopamine, starts connecting “getting back home after a stressful day” to a pleasurable stimulus, i.e. sweets or wine. This often leads us to developing unhealthy eating habits. Furthermore, when we are tired (which we often are when we are under stress), we produce more of the hormone melatonin, which leads to a drop of the level of another hormone, leptin. This drop in the level of leptin seems to make us more prone to taking in sugary or fatty foods.

Furthermore, the study found that when workers feel stressed, it takes them longer to go to sleep than when not stressed. This again can be e vicious circle: workers are tired in the morning because they have not had enough sleep. As they are tired, they don’t work as efficiently and have to work longer. When they get back home late, they are even more stressed out, which makes it more difficult to go to sleep. And so on.

In the study, there are a few recommendations on how stress at work can be reduced. Enhancing physical activity at work is one of them. But also snacking habits should be changed. Of course, it is better to have fruit or yoghurt than chocolate or biscuits. But what is not too well-known is that also eating too much fruit can produce negative effects similar to the intake of too much chocolate. Fruit also raises the level of blood sugar, which is absorbed quickly by insulin. Thus, eating fruit leads to an energy pike that can drop again quickly and then may lead to the need for more sugar intake (which could be more fruit, but also sweets).

Furthermore, some people have learned in their childhood to associate fatty or sugary foods with relief from stress, boredom or unhappiness. Often, this association remains when they grow up, and thus, they use unhealthy snacks as means of relieving themselves from stress, boredom or unhappiness. Patterns like these need to be unraveled and overcome.

Finally, also perfectionism seems to play a role in unhealthy eating habits. Perfectionists often try to have a really perfect diet that contains only healthy foods. Once they cross the line and eat something unhealthy, they feel like having failed, and once this has happened, they end up in a downward spiral with respect to their previously healthy diet. For people like this, it can be pointed out that a single “outtake” in their diet is no drama and that they have not failed just because they ate one unhealthy item. Loosening their own standards a bit can prevent them from getting into the downward spiral.

Being conscious about patterns like ones mentioned above can help overcome them. But also employers can help their employees, for example by not selling unhealthy snacks or sweet drinks and offering healthy foods in the canteen (if there is one). But they can also make sure that there is a kitchen in which employees can prepare their own lunch (or simply warm up something they have brought from home), provide healthy drinks (such as water) or healthy snacks like fruit or yoghurt for free. They can encourage their employees to exercise. And, finally, they can keep an eye on their employees’ stress levels.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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